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The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni

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Reviewed by Nancy Young

Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), considered by many the greatest of all Italian novels, is almost wholly unfamiliar to most American readers. While the great French novel, Les Miserables, is more frequently read -- though rarely fully pronounced these days – Alessandro Manzoni's masterpiece has at least as much spectacle, sweeping vistas, plot twists, and complex characters and is, to my mind, more satisfying. Perhaps a mini-series, or even a high-powered musical, will come along to correct this oversight. But why wait to discover this epic tale when it becomes part of popular culture?

Manzoni's premise is deceptively simple. A rural priest, Don Abbondio ("who has not the heart of a lion") is bullied by roughs representing the local nobleman, Don Rodrigo ("noble" is used here quite liberally) into denying to perform the long-awaited marriage of two innocent peasants: Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramaglino.

Don Rodrigo has evil designs upon Lucia, whom he has seen working in the fields, and he takes a tyrant's fancy to abduct her. Lucia's mother, Agnese, and the couple appeal for help to Fra Cristoforo, a truly Christ-like figure. The three are subsequently parted from one another as well as fom their small village, as they are hurled against the turbulent canvas of 17th-century Milan.

Catapulted into the Milan bread riots, the Thirty Years War, and then the plague, this sophisticated roller-coaster ride draws breath periodically in Manzoni's wonderfully clever asides, as well as in the backgrounds of his fascinating characters. In addition to those listed above, there are the histories of the unhappy Gertrude, the fearsome Unnamed (so terrible in character that Manzoni never reveals the man's name), and the saintly Cardinal Federigo Borromeo.

This sprawling novel of the Romantic Period is finally the story of an all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-loving God who watches over each of his children -- even the simplest and smallest -- as they are pitted against the cruelties and vagaries of the world.

The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni is featured in Vol 4 No 6 of The Storybook Home Journal.

Tags: Vol. 4 No. 6, 2010, Book reviews

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