From the author of The Spanish Bow (2007), a somewhat less successful sophomore outing.
The task of 26-year-old Ernst Vogler, a minor functionary for the Third Reich's Special Projects division, looks straightforward enough. He's to travel to Rome and oversee the packing of the classical statue The Discus Thrower, recently purchased on the express instructions of Hitler, the former art student known to his underlings as Der Kunstsammler. Then Vogler is to accompany Italian twins Enzo and Cosimo as they transport the statue to the border, where it will be handed over to the Gestapo, and he will get back to the safety of his desk. But things go immediately awry. Vogler, a callow young art expert who favors the "deep, clean, and relatively painless cut of narrow knowledge" to the messiness of politics or larger cultural issues—and who has been tapped for this plum job in part because he appeared, by sheer accident, to have expressed public contempt for a black American athlete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—finds that he lacks the needed linguistic and cultural skills to navigate languid, un-orderly, sentimental Italy. To avoid a threatened theft or double-cross, his drivers take to rustic side roads, a tactic that slows the pace and jeopardizes Vogler's deadline. Then it becomes apparent that the brothers have higher priorities than the job at hand: romances, marriage proposals, rivalries, a perilous entanglement with criminals. After a series of escalating misadventures, Vogler finds himself marooned in an Italian pastoral family life that may be dolce around the edges, but that is also extremely dangerous. Along the way, though, he surrenders himself both to the adventure and to a surprising (and not quite believable) love. The historical context is fascinating and atmospheric, but the novel wavers between suspense and romance and never quite convinces as either.
Hews too close to stereotype. Not bad, but mildly disappointing.