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  • Written by Andromeda Romano-Lax
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Written by Andromeda Romano-LaxAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andromeda Romano-Lax

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On Sale: February 14, 2012
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-61695-050-7
Published by : Soho Press Soho Press
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Ernst Vogler is twenty-six years old in 1938 when he is sent to Rome by his employer—the Third Reich's Sonderprojekte, which is collecting the great art of Europe and bringing it to Germany for the Führer. Vogler is to collect a famous Classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, and get it to the German border, where it will be turned over to Gestapo custody. It is a simple, three-day job.

Things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Italian twin brothers who have been hired to escort Vogler to the border seem to have priorities besides the task at hand—wild romances, perhaps even criminal jobs on the side—and Vogler quickly loses control of the assignment. The twins set off on a dangerous detour and Vogler realizes he will be lucky to escape this venture with his life, let alone his job. With nothing left to lose, the young German gives himself up to the Italian adventure, to the surprising love and inevitable losses along the way.

The Detour is a bittersweet novel about artistic obsession, misplaced idealism, detours, and second chances, set along the beautiful back-roads of northern Italy on the eve of war.

Excerpt

Prologue
1948
Piedmont, Northern Italy

The russet bloom on the vineyards ahead, the yellowleafed oaks, a hint of truffles fattening in moldy obscurity underfoot—none of it is truly familiar, because I first came here not only in a different season, but as a different man. Yet the smell of autumn anywhere is for me the smell of memory, and I am preoccupied as my feet guide me through the woods and fields up toward the old Piedmontese villa.
   When a salt-and-pepper blur charges out of the grass and stops just in front of me, growling, I stand my ground. I resist retreating; I reach out a hand. Foam drips from the dog’s black gums onto the damp earth. I am in no hurry, and neither is she. The sprint seems to have cost the dog most of her remaining energy, though. Her thin ribs heave as she alternately whines and threatens.
   “Tartufa?”
   The teeth retract and the quivering nose comes forward. Her speckled, shorthaired sides move in and out like a bellows.
   “Old hound, is it really you?”
   She sniffs my hand, backs away for one more growl, then surrenders her affection. These have been ten long and lonely years. Take a scratch where you can get it.
   She guides me, as if I have forgotten, up to the old barn.
Through a dirty window, I glimpse the iron bed frame, one dresser. But other items I’d once known by look and touch—the red lantern, the phonograph, any trace of woman’s clothing—are gone. A dark stain mars the stone floor, but perhaps it’s only moisture or fungus. In the corner, wedged into the frame of an oval mirror, is an old postcard of the Colosseum. I know what is written on the other side. I wrote it.
   I consider walking up the hill to the villa’s family burial ground to check for any recent additions—but no, even after coming this far, I’m still not ready for that. Tartufa trots ahead toward the side of the main house, toward the figure seated alone at the wooden table, a spiral of blue smoke rising from his thick-knuckled fingers. The door from the terrace into the kitchen hangs crookedly. Everything about the house seems
more worn, sloping like the old man’s shoulders.
   He calls out first. “Buongiorno.”
   “Adamo?” I try.
   Now he sits up straighter, squinting as I approach.
   “Zio Adamo?”
   It takes a minute for him to recognize me.
   “The Bavarian? Grüss Gott,” he cackles, using the only German phrase he knows. But still, he doesn’t seem to believe.
   “You’re coming from the North?”
   “No, from Rome. I took the train most of the way. Then a
ride, a bit of a walk . . .”    
   “You are living there?”
   “Just visiting museums.”
   “Holiday?”
   “Repatriation of antiquities.” And I explain what that means as he nods slowly, taking in the names of new agencies, international agreements, the effort of my own homeland to undo what was done—a history already begging to be forgotten. Wonder of wonders, the old man replies, how the world changes and stays the same. Except for some things.
   After he pours me a glass of cloudy plum liqueur, I take a seat at the old oak table and ask him about his sister-in-law, Mamma Digiloramo. He gestures with his chin up to the hill.
   “And Gianni and his wife?”
   They occupy the main house with their four children, Zio Adamo explains. He lives with them, and though this villa has been in the Digiloramo family for three generations and Gianni is not even a blood relative, it doesn’t matter—Adamo himself feels like a houseguest now. Fine, it’s less of a headache for him. Fewer worries about the crops, which haven’t done so well in the last few years. Surely I noticed the shriveled black grapes on the west side of the road, approaching
the main house.
   When I empty my glass of liqueur and decline a second, he says, “You haven’t asked about everyone,” with an emphasis on the last word.
   When I don’t reply he volunteers, “She moved to town. During the war, everything here went to pieces. Now she works in a café. She lives with her son.”
   Stunned, I repeat his last word back to him: “Figlio?”
   I must appear tongue-tied because he laughs, clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s about how her mother looked way back when, discovering the happy news. Not a virgin birth, but close. We celebrated without any questions.”
   “È quasi un miracolo.”
   “Your Italian is much better than last time.”
   “I’ve been practicing.”
   “Why?”
   “No particular reason. It’s a beautiful language.”
   He runs his tongue over his teeth, unconvinced. “If you wait, I can find someone to take you into town—if that is where you are going.”
   “Grazie. I’ll walk.”
   “It will take you two, three hours.”
   “Va bene. I could use the time with my thoughts.”
   “I don’t recommend it.”
   “Walking?”
   “No, remembering.” He doesn’t smile.
   Gesturing for me to wait, he pushes to his feet slowly, reaching for the cane leaning against the table’s corner, then escorts me back down the path, past the barn, to the track that leads to the dusty road lined with hazelnut bushes. Something is bothering him. At the end, he straightens his back, lifts his whiskered chin, and brushes his dry lips against my cheek. “That’s as far as I go, or I won’t make it back.”
   The dog has followed us, grateful for her master’s unhurried pace. I reach down to pat her side and mumble a few final endearments, whispering her name a final time.
   “That isn’t the original Tartufa, you know,” Zio Adamo says, looking a little embarrassed to be correcting me. “It’s her pup—the last one.”
   “This, a pup?”
   “A very old one.”
   “They look the same,” I say, squatting down to scratch her ears again, patting her ribs, puzzling over the pattern of her coat.
   He leans on the cane, face lowered to mine. “Certainly, you remember what happened to Tartufa . . .”
   “Yes,” I say, standing up to brush my hands on my trousers.
“That’s right.”
   “It makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who makes mistakes.” Zio Adamo smiles. “I’m sorry for not recognizing you right away. Even after you sat down, it was hard to believe.”
   “No need for apologies—”
   “It’s not just your Italian.”
   “I couldn’t put two words together back then.”
   “No,” he insists, with sudden vehemence, enough to make me wish I’d accepted that second, courage-bolstering drink.
“You were different in other ways.”
   “Weren’t we all?”
   But of course, I know what he means.
   There is a temptation to say that the long-ago past is a fog, that it is nearly impossible to recall the mindset of an earlier time. But that is a lie. The truth is that more recent events, such as the days leading up to the surrender, are a fog. In and out of the army, where they sent me again once it was clear I had made a mess of things on what might have been a relatively simple professional assignment—all that is a fog. I passed through it in a half-numb state, registering few sensations beyond the taste of watery potato soup and the unsticking of dirty, wet wool from frozen, bleeding feet.
   A year or two, or eight, can elapse that way, mercifully, while a fundamental childhood incident or an essential, youthful journey can remain polished by obsessive and dutiful reminiscence. It can remain like marble in one’s mind: five days in Italy—harder, brighter, more fixed and more true than anything that has happened before or since.
   Except I’d forgotten about the dog, and only now that I am reminded can I hear in my mind the stranger’s fatal Luger shot and recall how we all stopped, stunned, watching—and clearly forgetting, wanting to forget—even as the sound rang
out across the farm, the first shot of several that morning, my last morning in Italy, ten years ago. Of course.
   And if I have confused that one detail, have I confused anything else? Am I remembering my final moments at the villa inaccurately—not only the bitter, but also the sweet? Am I imagining a tenderness and a sense of possibility that never were?
   But that’s too much to ask without time to absorb and reflect on what Adamo has said, what the quiet of this villa and the padlock on the barn suggest. I cannot truly remember her, cannot truly remember then, until I can remember the person I was that long decade ago—a difficult portrait of an even more difficult time.
   On this afternoon, with acorns crunching beneath my feet, I have several hours and nothing else to do as I walk, inhaling the soft musk of the season, realizing with each footfall that I have little to lose given how much has been forfeited already. Is there also something, perhaps, to gain? No telling. Only the brittle sound of cracking shells, the memory of a different breeze on my face, the recollection of a less pleasant stroll, and all that followed.
Praise

Praise

“Romano-Lax is singularly gifted: she creates full-fledged, engaging characters and writes compelling narrative. Some of her descriptive passages take your breath away. The author’s The Spanish Bow was a hit. This novel will make a splash, too, for the same reasons.” —Library Journal

“A gently haunting work of subtle and surprising wisdom.”—Booklist

“A gem, combining a fascinating storyline about art acquisition in Hitler's Germany, an entrancing setting darkened by impending war, rich symbolism and engaging characters… well researched and executed. Romano-Lax, author of “The Spanish Bow,” possesses a gift for narrative texture that can incorporate and seamlessly join a moving story with character growth and an insightful, tangible realism.” —San Antonio Express News

“The ethical issues of the book are thought provoking, contrasting the artistic perfection of classical sculpture with basic human values. Ultimately, the sculpture itself provides the answer. Just as the discus thrower leans to balance the weight of the outstretched arm and the heavy disc, Ernst must learn to balance his love for classical art with personal morality; to reach for love, even while acknowledging it is more than any of us deserve.” —Foreword

"As Nazi Germany passes from living memory, novels that allow the reader to travel its ethical landscape are increasingly important. Andromeda Romano-Lax has a fine feel for  moments of clarity that are recognized only in hindsight, when chance and personal defects—moral and physical—combine to produce heroism, or mediocrity, or cowardice."—Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow, A Thread of Grace and Doc

"A marvelous adventure across landscapes both inner and outer, The Detour is a moving study in art and memory, history and geography, courage and compassion and every kind of love. Beautifully executed, deeply felt, and crammed with what feels for all the world like reality itself, it's a rare and valuable book indeed."—Jon Clinch, author of Finn and Kings of the Earth
 
"A poignant and important historical drama, as well as part road trip and compelling adventure, The Detour defies our expectations on every page.  Andromeda Romano-Lax is a powerful and moving storyteller."—Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red

"With elegance and an eye for the unexpected, Ms. Romano-Lax distills the often overwhelming anguish of World War II into this elegiac tale of an earnest young art curator's journey into Italy, where he finds himself caught between his reverence for the past and the horrors of the future. An evocative portrait of one man's passage into maturity and the resiliency of the human spirit, even in midst of the unimaginable."—C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

"The Detour is a suspenseful tale of artistic ideals, culture and power, complex family bonds, and redemptive love with one of the most finely crafted narratives I've ever read. It's certain to earn Andromeda Romano-Lax a new level of readership.  Vivid and heartbreaking, set against a shameful time in world history, Lax celebrates the resilience of the human condition, and its ability to heal against all odds."—Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Solomon's Oak

"The Detour is a wonderfully evocative and lyrical novel—a coming of age story woven into an adventure of art-smuggling under the Nazis. Romano-Lax brilliantly depicts a triumph over the seductive dangers of passivity when faced by love, art and the moral choices of life. A gemstone of a book!"—Simon Goldhill, author of Jerusalem

The Detour is both a thriller and a poetic journey of a young art specialist and an ancient statue through the deceits and dangers of the Third Reich. Plunging into crazy adventures in a truck on the back roads of Italy and fleeing long-buried memories, Ernst seeks the safe delivery of the statue and in the process discovers loyalty, love, and his own soul. Andromeda Romano-Lax is a unique and wonderfully gifted writer.”—Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude & Camille

"Swept up in the intrigue and humor, adventure and tragedy of The Detour, a reader might overlook the deep understanding of history and art imparted by author Andromeda Romano-Lax.  Set in 1938 Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany, the novel does what only literature can do, allowing us to experience moral complexity and struggle through a single beating heart. As Ernst Vogler travels across Italy to bring a famous marble sculpture home to Hitler, you will ride along with him through small villages and fields of sunflowers, through violence and love, through history in the making. And when you arrive at the end, you—like Ernst—will have been changed by the journey."—Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child

“Nicely paced, brisk with dialog, and lyric at the right moment.”—Library Journal

“A gem of a novel… The writing is top notch with excellent narrative flow, action and drama, while the Italian countryside and its seeming timelessness and detachment from the dramatic world events of the time is pictured pitch perfect by the author. Add to this the interludes where Ernst muses about art and its role in society and you will get a sense of why the book succeeds so well as it brings quite a few disparate elements into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.” —Fantasy Book Critic

"In a story that is beautifully written and sadly real, we are given a recounting of a life that has been effected by love, loss, and a struggle for survival and identity in a world and time where nothing could be taken for granted.” —Twisting the Lens


Praise for The Spanish Bow:

“An impressive and richly atmospheric debut.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Epic in scale ... excels as a portrait of a country at a painful moment in its evolution.—Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Ambitious and atmospheric.”—The Guardian


From the Hardcover edition.

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