The garden of letters, p.1
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       The Garden of Letters, p.1

           Alyson Richman
The Garden of Letters

  Praise for the works of Alyson Richman


  “Richman seamlessly weaves together the languages of music and love, reaching into the heart of the reader with artful portraits of heroism, sacrifice, and redemption. Fans of The Lost Wife will again savor Richman’s ability to tell a remarkable story about people who are unforgettable and real.”

  —Pam Jenoff, international bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl

  “Lyrical and rich with historical details and achingly real characters, the novel transported me to a wartime Italy filled with beauty and tragedy, romance and heartbreak. Readers will be swept up in the music of Richman’s story.”

  —Jillian Cantor, author of Margot

  “If you like war stories, you should read this book. If you like love stories, you should read this book. If you love music, you should read this book. If you love graceful, mellifluous writing, you should read this book. Bottom line: you should read The Garden of Letters!”

  —Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us

  “With its intricate blend of characters, towns, public and personal conflicts, The Garden of Letters demonstrates artistry of the highest order. Lyrical and compelling, Alyson Richman’s novel of a cellist coming of age in wartime Italy is as layered as a symphony. Exquisite.”

  —Erika Robuck, author of Fallen Beauty

  “Like a master composer, Alyson Richman guides the reader through a mesmerizing tale with the perfect balance of eloquence and suspense. A brilliant novel that will haunt me for years to come.”

  —Kristina McMorris, bestselling author of The Pieces We Keep

  “The Garden of Letters is a lyrical tale of redemption and strength in the midst of war. From the first notes, it invokes the music and the fierce passions of wartime Italy. Alyson Richman crafts a transportive novel vivid with history and fragile with hope.”

  —Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye


  “Moving, unforgettable, and so expertly told, you have to wonder if the author has a gift of time travel—this is storytelling at its very best.”

  —Sarah Jio, New York Times bestselling author of Blackberry Winter

  “Staggeringly evocative, romantic, heartrending, sensual, and beautifully written . . . The Lost Wife may well be the Sophie’s Choice of this generation.”

  —John Lescroat, New York Times bestselling author

  “A truly beautiful, heartfelt story . . . I couldn’t put it down once I started it. Ms. Richman is a very special talent.”

  —Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author

  “Richman writes with the clarity and softness of freshly fallen snow.”

  —Loring Mandel, two-time Emmy Award–winning screenwriter of Conspiracy

  “Tense, emotional, and fulfilling: a great achievement by Alyson Richman.”

  —Martin Fletcher, special correspondent, NBC News, winner of the Jewish National Book Award

  “The Lost Wife is a luminous, heartbreaking novel. I was barely able to put it down and can’t stop thinking about it.”

  —Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude & Camille and Marrying Mozart

  “Richman once again finds inspiration in art, adding evocative details to a swiftly moving plot. Her descent into the horrors of the Holocaust lends enormous power to Lenka’s experience and makes her reunion with Josef all the more poignant.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Tragedy and hope, love and loss, and the strength to endure are examined through Richman’s graceful writing and powerful characters.”


  Books by Alyson Richman







  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) LLC

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

  USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

  A Penguin Random House Company

  This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

  Copyright © 2014 by Alyson Richman.

  Excerpt from The Lost Wife copyright © 2011 by Alyson Richman.

  “Readers Guide” copyright © 2014 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  BERKLEY® is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-61579-9

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Richman, Alyson.

  The garden of letters / Alyson Richman.—First edition.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 978-0-425-26625-0 (paperback)

  1. Women musicians—Fiction. 2. Fascism—Italy—Fiction. 3. World War, 1939–1945—Italy—Fiction. 4. World War, 1939–1945—Underground movements—Italy—Fiction. 5. Portofino (Italy)—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3568.I3447G37 2014




  Berkley trade paperback edition / September 2014

  Title page art ©

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


  For Katia Galvetto, who gave me Verona

  For Zachary, Charlotte, and Stephen, whom I will always love beyond the stars


  Praise for the works of Alyson Richman

  Books by Alyson Richman

  Title Page













































  Author’s Note and Acknowledgments

  Readers Guide

  Special Preview of The Lost Wife

  “People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”



  Portofino, Italy

  OCTOBER 1943

  Her rucksack contains her life reduced to small pieces. Though their physical weight is inconsequential, everything she carries feels heavy to her. She tries to pull her skirt underneath her, but the wind coming off the bay is relentless, and the cotton billows around her like a parachute.

  She closes her eyes and tries to picture herself being lifted from the deck of the boat, floating above in the cool air and looking down as the vessel moves across the water. Genoa, Rapallo, and the western coast of Italy look like a knife’s edge against the water. From the boat, she can see the pale facades of the villas nestled into the cliffs and the century-old hotels that face the sea.

  She has been traveling for days, but it feels like months. With a gray scarf covering her dark hair and her navy blue dress modest and unassuming, she could be any young Italian girl in her early twenties.

  Her stomach is empty. She tries to forget her hunger by scanning her fellow passengers. The boat carries close to thirty people. Seven of them are German soldiers, along with a handful of grandmothers dressed in their widow black. The others are nameless men and women who all appear unremarkable to her.

  Just as she hopes she appears to them.

  Early on in the war, she learned how to lose herself: to appear plain, and not worth stopping in the street. She can’t remember the last time she wore a brightly colored dress or her favorite silk blouse, the one with the white flowers. Beauty, she has come to realize, is another weapon, better packed away and revealed only when absolutely needed.

  She instinctively cups her hands on her stomach as the boat approaches the dock. She is surprised to find so many Germans there, as she had believed she was finally on her way to safety. She has spent weeks trying to avoid them, yet now here they are standing at the dock, waiting to check everyone’s papers.

  She feels her entire stomach turn. She takes off her rucksack and instinctively clutches it to her chest.

  She stands up, her legs feeling like they may give out from underneath her. She takes her palms to her cheeks and gently presses the skin, so that the pallor of fear is replaced with color.

  Afraid the soldiers might search too deeply inside her rucksack, she withdraws her forged papers and holds them to her side. She walks slowly behind one of the widows whose crucifix is so large, she hopes it might cast off a bit of protection onto her as well—or at least temporarily distract the soldiers.

  She walks carefully across the deck until she finally reaches the dock. High on the hill, the white houses look like teeth. She sees bougainvillea roping over terraces and hibiscus flowers opening up like parasols to the sun. She inhales the scent of jasmine, but she is weakening from fear with every step.

  “Ausweis!” The Germans are barking their orders and grabbing papers out of nervous hands.

  Elodie is next in line. Her hand clasps her false papers. A few weeks before, she had destroyed the identity card that bore her real information. Elodie Bertolotti is now Anna Zorzetto.

  Anna. Anna. She tries to concentrate on her new name. Her heart is pounding.

  “Next! You!” One of the Germans grabs the papers in her hand, his fingers seizing them with such force that their fingers momentarily overlap. She shudders at his touch.

  “Name!” the German snaps at her. His voice is so sharp, she finds herself momentarily freezing and incapable of uttering even the slightest sound.


  Her mouth is now open, but she is like a muted instrument. She begins to stammer when, out of nowhere, a voice shoots through the air.

  “Cousin! Cousin!” a large, barrel-chested man shouts to her from the crowd that had congregated at the dock.

  “Cousin! Thank goodness you’ve come. I’ve been waiting for you for days!” The man pushes to the front of the crowd and embraces her.

  “She’s with me,” he tells the German soldier.

  “Well . . . take her then,” the soldier mutters as he reaches for the papers of the next person in line.

  This man, whom Elodie has never seen before, squeezes her arm tightly and begins steering her through the crowd. He pushes people away so she can walk freely in his path.

  He turns his head toward her and waves his hand in the direction of the hill. “This way,” he whispers. “I live above the port, deep into the cliff.”

  She stands for a moment, frozen in her tracks. She can still hear the noises from the harbor: the Germans barking orders, the shouts as people try to locate each other, and the cries from tired children.

  “I am not your cousin,” she finally says to him. “You must be mistaken.” She tries to speak slowly and clearly. She notices his speech is more proper than the dialect she heard on the dock. He speaks in an educated tongue. But still, Elodie wants her words to be received without confusion.

  Her scarf has loosened, allowing her face to emerge from a sea of drab cloth. Like water receding to reveal a well-polished stone. Immediately, he is struck by the green of her eyes and the intensity of her gaze. He looks at her without speaking, then finally forms his words. “I know you’re not.”

  “Then why? Why did you save me?”

  She hears his breath, a whisper of air escaping from his chest.

  “Every few months I come here and save one person.”

  She looks at him, puzzled. “But why did you pick me?”

  He studies her face, reaffirming what he already knows.

  “Why? It’s simple. I choose the person who looks the most afraid.”


  Portofino, Italy

  OCTOBER 1943

  He asks if he can carry her rucksack for her. She tells him no. “I carry this myself.” He does not push her. He cannot read her quite yet. He can only smell the fear on her. To him, it’s the scent of a hunted animal. She is restless and suspicious. Her expression does not soften as they walk up the narrow streets toward his house. She focuses her eyes ahead and does not stop once to gaze at the unspoiled beauty of the village or the sea below.

  He alternates from walking in front of her to moments of lagging behind. Sometimes he feels the betrayal of his own body. The swell of his stomach, the shortness of his legs, the foot injury that kept him out of this war. She is steps ahead of him, and he notices the strength of her body. The ribbon of muscle in her calves, the tightness in her hips. The firmness of her arms.

  “We’re almost there,” he tells her.

  She looks back at him and stares. He has seen that look—the vulnerable wanting to appear strong—countless times over the past year.

  “You can trust me,” he tells her.

  Again she stares at him. One of the straps of her rucksack slips off her shoulder and she readjusts it.

  “What is your name?” he asks.

  She is so tired that “Elodie” nearly slips from her tongue, but she catches that word before it escapes her. “Anna,” she says. “Anna Zorzetto.”

  “Anna. I am a doctor. The only one here in the village. I promise, you have nothing to fear from me.”
r />   His explanation seems to register with her, but she does not soften in the sunlight. He notices that the exact opposite happens instead, as if her body stiffens with his every word.

  She tries to read him. The look in his eyes, the lines of his face that suggest both a sadness and an earnestness at the same time.

  She turns her head back again, as if to look one more time at the port below. She is desperate to forget the sheer terror she felt only minutes ago, when she feared they might question her papers, or even worse, search her bag.

  “Well,” she finally manages to say, “I suppose I will have to trust you. I don’t have any choice, do I?”

  They walk deeper into the rocky cliffs, climbing a small, narrow path, passing over ancient stone walls that barricade a steep mountainside, before they arrive at a small archway covered in vines. Tucked within the jungle of flowers and thicket is a white house with a heavy door, the wood painted in glossy coats of green. She notices the lemon and fig trees and, again, the perfume of jasmine in the air. She feels dizzy. These are not the trees of her childhood in the north of Italy, with its crisp smell of pine and juniper berries in the air. Here she feels as though she has awakened from a dream. The dialect is foreign. The skin more weathered, the clothes less refined.

  How many days has it been since she has slept deeply? The fatigue inside her is paralyzing, and she is thirsty for sleep. Everything she does seems to require an inordinate amount of energy, compounded by the strain of trying not to appear tired and vulnerable.

  Inside the house, he offers her a glass of water. She drinks it down greedily and he refills the glass. And, then, one more time. He goes into the kitchen and cuts her three pieces of bread. He spoons some honey into a bowl. He removes the stem of a persimmon and quarters it with a knife before scooping out the soft flesh into a saucer.

  She takes only one spoonful of the honey with the bread even though she wants more. She takes only a little of the persimmon. She does not want to reveal the nakedness of her hunger. But the third glass of water, she finishes entirely.

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