Book Review: The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton

I read this wonderful book as part of the “12 Months of Reading Goodness” challenge. January’s challenge is to read a book published in your birth year, which for me is 1966. I’m so glad I did this challenge because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered this book – it’s over 50-years-old, afterall; vintage, just like me.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria takes place in a small village in the mountains of Italy during WWII. It is a brilliant commentary about human nature, relying on deadpan and sometimes dark humor to cover topics like love, honor, power, community dynamics and prejudices. Robert Crichton cleverly weaves a parable that pits Italian peasants against German soldiers in a cat and mouse game involving the wine that serves as the lifeblood of the little village.

The beginning of the book coincides with the overthrow of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. At first, the villagers were indifferent, not seeing how it impacted them at all. But then someone figured out that it meant the end of the gaggle of incompetent fascists who had been running their town. Then they were ecstatic. In an amusing sequence of events, Italo Bombolini, a clownish man with a penchant for Machiavelli, becomes the new mayor and surprises everyone when he rises to the occasion.

When Mussolini was kicked out, Italy switched sides in the war, which meant the Germans who were previously in the country as allies were now an occupying force. Some of the Germans in a nearby town decided they wanted Santa Vittoria’s 1.5 million bottles of wine. This wine represented the only income most of the villagers would make that year. Without it, they would face starvation. So they hid it.

When German Captain von Prum, an admirer of Nietszche, arrives in town, he and Bombolini match wits (in a Machiavelli vs Nietzsche throwdown), with von Prum underestimating Bombolini and the villagers every step of the way. Von Prum wants to have a “bloodless victory,” not because he has compassion but because anything else would be beneath him. But he quickly unravels when he can’t find the wine and he abandons his principles. At this point, the novel, which has mostly been a pretty lighthearted farce up until now, becomes very dark with graphic scenes of torture. The switch was jarring and perhaps the author’s way of reminding us that war is not a humorous romp. It also served to create a lot of additional tension regarding the wine – would this finally lead to the wine’s discovery?

I’m not going to tell you!

This book is a gem, one that many people may not have heard of. It was very successful when it was published, spending over 50 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was made into a movie which was released in 1969. It’s insightful, humorous, cleverly plotted and unlike anything I have read recently. I enthusiastically recommend it!

Now it’s your turn. Tell us about the forgotten gems that were published in your birth year.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton

  1. Well, I’m not much of a book reviewer–in fact, I’ve never written one, nor even belonged to a book club–but here goes. Since I was in the mood for a mystery, I chose Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember, which was published in 1972 (just like I was).

    As one of her late novels, it was easier to figure out before the end than others. I felt like I knew what had happened before Poirot presented it (almost always not the case), but it was an enjoyable read all the same, especially because the characters involved. I’ve read a few of her novels, but the earlier ones. I think I’d recommend that new readers to her work start earlier on, but definitely give the Poirot stories a try.

    Also, my husband is still trying to decide what to hand me for February. Luckily, he’ll probably give me something brainy instead of cheesy. I hope!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh! The plot had to do with an old case and whether a couple had killed themselves or had been murdered. The elephant reference was for the people who might have had information about such an old case. Elephants never forgetting and all that.

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    • Thanks, Karen! I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize that Agatha Christie was still around in the ’70s. So I looked her information up and found that she died in 1976. After writing 60+ novels, she must have run out of a little steam with the one you read.

      Hope your husband comes through for you. Mine pleasantly surprised me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I too read The Secret of Santa Vittoria but unfortunately cannot wax so eloquently as Michelle. Michelle nailed it in her review. It truly was a great story and an enjoyable read. Did it seem like it was written 50 years ago? Yeah, maybe, but for me that seemed to give it an almost nostalgic feel. Maybe back to a time when a well thought out well written story was enough? This was a book that I couldn’t wait to pick up again just to be taken back to the town of Santa Vittoria.

    Perhaps the only additional thought that I had while reading this book was that the wine could serve as a metaphor for the Jews during World War II. Hiding the wine, just like hiding Jews, seemed like an impossible task. When Crichton describes the wine flowing through the town and staining the streets, this made me think of the Jewish blood that was spilled and the stain it left all across Europe. The Italians of Santa Vittoria were powerless, or so it would seem, against the mighty Nazi machine. Yet, in their subtle way, they were able to frustrate and deceive the Germans, while at the same time protecting their most precious asset, their wine. This too could be said for many different societies in Europe during the war. They knew direct opposition to the Nazis was futile but through secrecy and deception, many were able to hide and protect numerous Jewish people.

    I wholeheartedly would recommend this book. My copy came from our public library and was a paperback version that cost 95 cents! I kept hoping it wouldn’t fall apart before I returned it – otherwise I was going to be out 95 cents….

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  3. Michelle, I too am very literal, and when I jumped into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), I wasn’t sure what to think about the book. It is a story about a school teacher at a private girls’ school in Edinbugh, Scotland during the 1930s. Miss Brodie was a great example of who I would not have wanted for my childrens’ teacher. She spoke about herself being in her “prime”, talked at length about her past and tried to manipulate what she thought best for her special group of six students known as the “Brodie set.” I was a little put off about some of the repetitive language and somewhat obsessive topics in the story. For example, one student, Mary, was constantly referred to as stupid (that’s my first name, perhaps why I would cringe!) I finally realized after several pages that this was a dark humor book. I was a bit relieved by that revelation and realized that I haven’t read anything of that genre in many years.

    Also like your book, Michelle, the story touched on the evil of fascism as Miss Brodie was an admirer of Mussolini and other fascist leaders of the time. It is evident that the events leading up to WWII and the war itself greatly influenced literature even into the 60s when we were born.

    After reading the book and still feeling a bit confused about it, I read a brief biography of Muriel Spark, the author. I also read through many of its reviews. Learning she was a poet helped answer the repetition of language and reading about some details of her life explained some of the random topics that came up in the book. Would I read another book by her? Probably not! But I did learn that before I try another book considered great literature, I need to do some homework!

    And now onto my February novel! Thank you for this challenge!

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