Smith, best known for thrillers (“Gorky Park,” “Tatiana”), sets his latest novel in the romantic city of Venice.
‘The Girl from Venice’
by Martin Cruz Smith
Simon and Schuster, 320 pp., $27
Venice is famously romantic; fitting, then, that much of Martin Cruz Smith’s new novel is set there. Smith is a superlative thriller writer (“Gorky Park,” “Tatiana”), but “The Girl from Venice” — while undeniably thrilling — is, at heart, a tender love story.
At the end of World War II, the increasingly desperate Nazis still occupy much of Italy, including Venice. Most Venetians are keeping their heads down, knowing it will soon end.
One night, a fisherman called Cenzo encounters something startling in the Venetian Lagoon: a woman, floating and nearly dead.
He hauls her aboard and they elude a Nazi patrol boat searching for her. Hiding her, he learns her name — Giulia — and, despite her spiky defiance, is thoroughly smitten.
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It soon becomes clear that a betrayal destroyed Giulia’s wealthy Jewish family, and the man responsible is after her. When she swears revenge and disappears, Cenzo tracks her to the mountain town of Salò, the capital of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s puppet nation.
There they fall into a circle that includes a diplomat’s seductive wife, a smooth film director and several actors — including Cenzo’s matinee-idol brother Giorgio. The two are bitter enemies: Cenzo holds his brother responsible for Cenzo’s wife’s death. Their animosity provides much of the book’s emotional momentum.
When Giulia’s betrayer is revealed, the story circles back to Venice, via a dramatic air journey (and an improbable subplot involving a fortune in stolen gold). Along the way, not surprisingly, Cenzo and Giulia have succumbed to their deep mutual attraction.
The characters in “The Girl from Venice” are less nuanced than those in the best of Smith’s work. But the book is still strong — a gripping evocation of a beautiful nation and of two people, trapped in the lunacy of war and the bravery it can inspire.