The Librarians of Alexandria: A Tale of Two Sisters
This is the saga of the Canterno family. The story takes place in Italy and Egypt from 1870 to the end of World War II. Tomasso Canterno is from a well-to-do Italian family in the mountain village of Fumone. Rebelling against his family’s plans and renouncing his share of the family fortune, he announces his intention to pursue his studies and become a professor. He takes a teaching position in Alexandria and brings along his wife, Antonia, and newborn daughter, Marta. Another daughter, Margherita, and a son are born. Tomasso is an ardent bibliophile, and the children grow up surrounded by books. Marta and Margherita both share Tomasso’s love of learning. Marta is especially gifted in languages and music, and Tomasso encourages her in her studies; Margherita does not receive the same attention and encouragement. Eventually circumstances require the family to return to Italy without Tomasso. Marta becomes an accomplished musician, and earns a doctorate in languages, and both daughters become librarians. The story follows the women from Rome to Naples to Palermo and through romance, marriage, child-rearing, and divorce.
Despite the fact that this book won the Zerilli-Marimo Prize, I recommend it with reservations. Part One of the book dragged quite a bit for me. Part Two, which is told from Marta’s daughter’s point of view and covers the years leading up to the war, and then the war itself, was much more interesting. In this part, she tells of her mother’s work with ancient texts and 15th and 16th century incunabula at the Casanatense Library in Rome, and of her efforts to save illuminated manuscripts at the National Library of Palermo during the war. I also enjoyed the glimpse into everyday life in Italy during this time and the lovely descriptions of Rome, Naples, Palermo and Alexandria.