A fascinating, often painfully vivid portrait of the family of Alessandro Manzoni, a 19th-century Italian man of letters. Italian novelist Ginzburg here uses the epistolary technique of her fiction (No Way, 1974; The City and the House, 1987) to craft a brilliant biography of four generations of a complex, frequently tortured family. The emotions of anguish and joy, despair and faith felt by the Manzonis were no less monumental or dramatic than those depicted in Alessandro's romantic novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). His mother left his father to live with another man in Paris; when her lover died, she and Manzoni were reunited. He married the 16-year-old daughter of Calvinists, Enrichetta Blondel; a few years later, mother, son, and wife all converted to Catholicism. Manzoni had two wives and ten children and outlived all but three. His daughters endured wretched health. A couple of his sons were profligate: he refused to communicate with one; another ran through his own and his wife's fortunes and, unable to feed, clothe, or house his 11 children, wrote endless pathetic letters begging his father to send cast-off clothes, chic, kens, and used linens. Most of the births, deaths, feuds, and reconciliations are detailed in the long, passionate letters sent from one family member to another. Excerpts from hundreds of these letters and from journal entries form the robust flesh of this biography. Ginzburg uses her own staccato yet lyrical prose sparingly as the skeleton to shape and support the original voices. Ginzburg's graceful joining of modern clarity and control with 19th-century passion and drama makes this an extraordinarily moving and evocative book.