Return to Valetto
by Dominic Smith
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Pub Date 13 Jun 2023 | Archive Date 31 Jul 2023
A Must-Read at The New York Post, BookPage, and The Christian Science Monitor
“A story of love, loss, and the enduring power of hope. I was transfixed from page one.” ―Lara Prescott, New York Times bestselling author of The Secrets We Kept
From the bestselling author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s Return to Valetto tells of a nearly abandoned Italian village, the family that stayed, and long-buried secrets from World War II.
On a hilltop in Umbria sits Valetto. Once a thriving village that survived centuries of earthquakes and landslides and became a hub of resistance and refuge during World War II, it has since been nearly abandoned, as residents sought better lives elsewhere. Only ten remain, including the widows Serafino—three eccentric sisters and their steely centenarian mother—who live quietly in their medieval villa. Then their nephew and grandson, Hugh, a historian, returns.
But someone else has arrived before him, laying claim to the cottage where Hugh spent his childhood summers. The unwelcome guest is the captivating and no-nonsense Elisa Tomassi, who asserts that the family patriarch, Aldo Seraﬁno, a resistance fighter whom her own family harbored, gave the cottage to them in gratitude. But like so many threads of history, this revelation unravels a secret—a betrayal, a disappearance, and an unspeakable act of violence—that has affected Valetto across generations. Who will answer for the crimes of the past?
Dominic Smith’s Return to Valetto is a riveting journey into one family’s dark past, a page-turning excavation of the ruins of history, and a probing look at our commitment to justice in a fragile world. It is also a deeply human and transporting testament to the possibility of love and understanding across gaps of all kinds—even time.
A Note From the Publisher
★ “[Dominic Smith] is a master of his trade who has executed a flawless novel that satisfies on all counts. . . . [with] a nostalgic tone and classic style that cleverly match the subject material and setting. The result is a richly rewarding book that is imbued with a sense of timelessness. It’s an outright pleasure to read, an excellent choice for both armchair travelers looking to vicariously experience Italy’s dolce vita, and for lovers of impeccably crafted literary fiction.” —BookPage (starred review)
“[Smith] brings Valetto to life with a gift for symmetry and a dash of humor . . . This accomplished novel offers engaging characterization paired with echoes of the past that resound in the present.” —Bethany Latham, Booklist
“An intriguing saga of wartime promises and trauma . . . This intelligent family drama will keep readers turning the pages.” —Publishers Weekly
“I was completely charmed and transported by Return to Valetto, Dominic Smith’s smart, engaging novel about the secrets held within a dying Italian village. This terrific novel, about loss and family and the weight of history, is probably as close as I’ll ever get to buying one of those picturesque Italian villas, and surely a wiser investment.” —Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins and The Angel of Rome
“Packed with lush details and a gripping narrative, Dominic Smith’s masterful novel is about the ways in which the past echoes through generations, how the human heart is both fragile and resilient, and what it takes to stand up for justice no matter how much time has passed. Return to Valetto is a story of love, loss, and the enduring power of hope. Propulsive, heartfelt, and sneakily funny—I was transfixed from page one.” —Lara Prescott, New York Times bestselling author of The Secrets We Kept
“In this propulsive, lush, and haunting novel, Dominic Smith transports us to a near-abandoned town in Umbria and shows how the courage to voice unspeakable secrets of the past can give new life to crumbling bonds of family and community. Filled with enormous hope for the future and rich appreciation for history, Return to Valetto will make you want to race through to the end but also slow down to savor the beautiful writing and sharp insights. I couldn’t put it down.” —Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek
“The revelations of Return to Valetto—those of history, and those of the heart—unfold with meticulous grace in Dominic Smith’s stately and majestic novel. With fascists breathing down our necks anew, Return to Valetto could not be more timely, but it is the fine writing and high drama that make it so memorable, and so moving.” —Joshua Ferris, author of A Calling for Charlie Barnes
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 120 members
f you’re looking for authentic Italy, of the crumbling villa variety, look no further. Valetto is a dying town–its population has dwindled to just ten. But Hugh Fisher has deep ties to the village in Umbria where his aunts live and has returned to celebrate the 100th birthday of his grandmother. As Hugh navigates recent losses of his mother and wife, he also confronts the brutal weight of history. Not one word out of place, saturated with imagery and atmosphere while paying homage to family ties, this is one masterpiece of a novel. I devoured it and so will you.
Thank you to NetGalley for the advance reading copy and the opportunity to savor this amazing book. Widower Hugh Fisher is an American academic specializing in vanishing Italian towns, and who has familial ties to the mostly abandoned village of Valetto. He has spent happy times there as a child, in a villa with mildly eccentric aunts, and his grandmother, now about to celebrate her 100th birthday. His return to the villa for both academic and celebratory reasons is skewed by disturbing revelations from Italy's WWII past as well as an unexpectedly charming interloper. The characters, the descriptions of the Umbrian countryside, and the vivid portrayals of the abandoned village and crumbling villa are all wonderful. This was a page-turner I couldn't put down.
Italy is one of my favorite places and after reading “Return to Valetto” it is clear that Dominic Smith loves it for the same reasons I do: it possesses a lengthy and tumultuous history and in contemporary Italy there is often a tension between the past and present, especially when the less-savory aspects of the past need to be dealt with. This is the second book I’ve read this month that focuses on a nearly abandoned Italian town where inhabitants and visitors are forced to confront the lingering effects of WWII in Fascist Italy. While “Return to Valetto” is a markedly different story than the other it is interesting how these ideas can shape a wide variety of tales. Here, historian Hugh arrives from Michigan to spend a 6 month sabbatical with his grandmother and great aunts in their crumbing Umbrian villa, in a town where only 10 people still live. Almost immediately he learns of a story he never heard, about his family’s efforts to house children during the war, and a resolution to the story of his long-missing grandfather, who left near the end of the war and was never again heard from…until a woman shows up to tell them what happened, and that he left her family a cottage on their property. The story that follows investigates conflict, loss, trauma, and grief spread over a half century. The novel is beautifully written, very poignant, often witty, and gorgeous in descriptions of the land, the food, and the people. There are many unexpected turns in this story and I found it wonderfully resolved. I highly recommend this book, especially to those who love Italy. Thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for the opportunity to review this book.
This was a book I did not want to end...and I lingered in the pages, steeping myself in Valetto. I wanted to have a room in one of the apartments (my pick would to be ensconced with Ida). I found the dying village of Valetto to be the most amazing character of the book... and while the dying of this village is sad, it felt appropriate that it should not be a thriving city.
Hugh heads home to Valetto to allow himself more healing time after the death of a wife he loved, followed by his mother. Painful blows in any life, but as the story unfold we learn of complicated relationships and his return to Valetto makes even more sense.
He finds the unexpected there... mingling with the familiar. He meets Elisa Tomassi, who has come with a letter from his grandfather Aldo Serafino. This letter scratches open the surface of a history that has been untouched for far too long and unraveling this history will help heal Hugh, Elisa, and her mother in the most beautiful way.
This story is beautifully written and the characters are well-developed. There was something that I saw coming but, I believe that it was the exact thing that had to happen in this story. The ending makes me wish for an "After Valetto" and I am now off to find more books by Dominic Smith to read!
I highly recommend!
A huge thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with a copy of this book to read.
If you love to travel in books this one is the perfect book for you. It takes place in an almost abandoned village in Italy. I was completely transported there. The writing was beautiful and so atmospheric. It often made me hungry for Italian food and left me longing for a visit back to Italy.
Hugh is a historian who returns to his mother’s hometown where his grandmother and her three sisters still live. When he gets there a woman has arrived and claimed the cottage that his mother willed to him. This sparks an investigation that unearths a mystery and eventually long-held secrets from the past that lead Hugh to understand his difficult mother.
This is my first Dominic Smith book and it will definitely not be my last.
Thanks to NetGalley and Farrah, Straus, and Giroux for an eARC of this book.
Hugh Fisher is American born but with the deepest ties to his mother’s ancestral home in Valetto, Umbria, Italy. Here he remembers summers spent with his aunts and grandmother and the people of their crumbling villa. Here he wandered the countryside and kept up his Italian. Hugh became a well-regarded historian with a narrow focus: towns that are abandoned because of war, natural disasters, or population shifts. What becomes of them? What are their legacies? The same can be asked of Hugh. He is still navigating the loss of his wife due to illness and the more recent loss of his mother. It is she who leaves him a cottage adjacent to the villa. Hugh returns intent upon claiming his memories and inheritance on a sabbatical that will allow him to explore his historical passions, while keeping his real emotions locked in.
When Hugh arrives at Valetto it is in turmoil. Grandmother is planning a massive 100-year-old birthday celebration, the three aunts are enraged because a female interloper from the north is claiming Hugh’s cottage as part of her inheritance and the villa is crumbling all around them.
Hugh steps into this scenario with his grief, an open mind and a historian’s curiosity.
The best thing about this book is everything! The descriptions of the countryside, Hugh’s take on history, the wonders of Valetto from its past to its possible future, the aunts so alike but so different and quirky, and the grandmother’s compassion and tenacity. Then there is the mystery of the interloper: what is her story and why does her claim resonate with the history of Valetto?
Lastly, there is the description of the food: how it provides comfort and provokes memory.
This reader had an inkling of where the story would wander and could not wait to get there!
I would happily read it again just for the descriptions and the build-up. Highly, highly recommended. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing this title.