Alyson Richman is the bestselling author of The Mask Carver’s Son, The Rhythm of Memory, The Last Van Gogh, and The Lost Wife. She has received both national and international praise for her work, including 15 language translations. She has been nominated for honors such as the Book Sense Notable Pick in 2006, a Jewish Book Council selection, and the Long Island Reads Pick which she won in 2012. She lives in Long Island with her husband and two children. Learn more about Alyson on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
The Garden of Letters explores the life of a young musician swept into the Italian Resistance during World War II.
Excerpt from The Garden of Letters
Berkley Trade Paperback
© Alyson Richman 2014
From Chapter Four
“My name is Angelo,” he tells her, and Elodie is immediately struck by the sweetness of the name.
Her sleep has refreshed her, and when she awakens, he is sitting in the small dining room. There is a long loaf of bread on the table and a small triangle of cheese. A carafe of wine and two glasses of water.
She notices the paintings on the walls. Small, simple scenes of the water. A fisherman and his net, and a white house against a sea of blue. She finds his age is difficult to estimate. His hair is still dark, but there are the first wisps of gray. He is paler than the men she saw at the port. His eyes are a soft, dusty blue.
There are books everywhere. On the shelves against the walls. On the small coffee table, stacked in threes, with shells placed neatly on top. She sees there is an open book on the counter, placed front down, as if he had stopped in midsentence.
The sight of the books conjures up memories of her first encounter with Luca, and she finds herself wanting to cry, though she stifles the urge to do so. But it snakes up her throat and she pushes it down with such intensity that she feels it twist like a tornado within her belly.
He lets her eat in peace, and she is thankful that he does not need to fill the air with words. In the silence, she hears only the sound of his knife cutting against the plate, or the snap of the bread as he breaks it in his hands. The quiet wash of water as he sips from his glass.
These are sounds that she can tolerate. Their rhythm soft with a simplicity that soothes her. She hears her mother singing Venetian melodies in the distance of her memory. She closes her eyes and tries to quell herself with another’s song.
She wonders if this man sitting across from her realizes that her mind is elsewhere. That as she breaks her bread and chews it into bits and pieces and sips from her water glass, just as he does, her body is her cloak of deception. It occupies the space across from him, it mirrors his in the simple ritual of eating, but her mind is far away.
She travels through time and space. Extracting her spirit from her limbs, in the same way she used to pull music from an instrument that would otherwise have remained silent.
First and always there is the image of Luca standing in his bookstore. His dark hair and canvas smock with two sharp pencils in the front pocket. His fingers smudged with newsprint. The smell of paper. The dizziness from a chamber of so many words.
She tries with all effort to push these thoughts from her mind. Instead, she finds herself reaching for the small dish of salt, but her hands shake as she lifts it toward her. When she looks up, she sees her host has noticed this as well.
She wants to tell him that she is not shaking because she is nervous. She is beyond that. It’s because her fatigue is bone-deep. She wonders if that is how the elderly feel. So tired from the arc of their life, there is an almost instinctual urge to surrender. To finally give up and find rest.
After dinner, sensing she is still weary from her journey, he asks her if she would like to take a bath. He is quiet and respectful, giving her privacy as he shows her the door to the small room with the deep, wooden tub already half-filled with cool water.
She waits for him to bring her the kettle of hot water. Two more rounds will follow until the bath is sufficiently warmed, but the sight of the rushing water is a relief. She undresses with the door closed, and the simple ritual of removing her shoes and her skirt soothes her. She unbuttons her blouse and removes her slip and underpants. She does not look at herself in the mirror above the sink. She does not glance at the skin, now stretched taut and white. She places one foot in the water, then the other before she sits and pulls her knees to her chest. She closes her eyes and twists back her hair. Then, softly, quietly, thinking no one will hear her, she begins to sing. Not out of joy. But out of longing. Out of a desire for comfort. Just like her mother did, all those years before.