A Harvest of Secrets is a slow burner, then halfway it ignites like gunpowder and the end is an emotional and deeply satisfying explosion, uniting all the storylines of the novel together in a kind of literary bonfire.
The novel is set in WWII, fascist Italy when much of the country has fallen under the control of the Nazi regime. The story unfolds primarily in a rural northern village where an old, aristocratic family grows grapes and produces wine. The San Antonio family and their estate have been lords over the land and the people for generations. There are tensions between the family who own the winery and its workers, age old class-based tensions that threaten to erupt under the additional strain of wartime food shortages and unpredictable Nazi raids. The war has also brought about new factions and exacerbated pre-existing enmities: resistance fighters and saboteurs against Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, deserters from the Italian and German armies, Il Duce’s spies, and Nazi collaborators. Caught in the cross hairs between these conflicting factions are two young lovers: Vittoria, the daughter of the proud noble family and Carlo, the orphaned peasant boy she grew up playing with. There are also others who find themselves trapped on one side or the other of the war: Old Paolo, the foreman at the winery, Umberto San Antonio, the noble man who owns the land, Enrico San Antonio, his son and Vittoria’s brother, Eleonora, the Jewish woman in their midst. They each have their obligations to family, country, and to those who have sheltered, raised, and loved them. These obligations tear the lovers and their community apart — and bring everyone together in other ways.
Merullo’s novel is not only about the lovers; it also about the many individuals whose lives intertwine with theirs. Indeed, the novel is more of a broad panoramic view of Italian society in this fraught period of the twentieth century. Some of the people Carlo meets are sympathetic to Mussolini, others seek freedom from the politics that engulfs them all, others are victims of Il Duce’s ill-conceived plans and ambitions. Vittoria is likewise surrounded by those who would do her harm and protect her from it. There are resistance fighters, Nazi soldiers and officers, Nazi collaborators, and Mussolini’s spies lurking and active all over the countryside, waiting to strike or entrap her and other innocent Italians who simply want to do what is right for themselves and their families, and by their conscience. As a woman of this period, Vittoria’s options are limited. Italian patriarchy places shackles on her that are made for women alone. She is meant to be a good daughter, a good woman, a quiet woman — but in the chaos of the war Vittoria cannot remain silent.
Woven into this larger cultural, social, and political vista of Italian wartime life is a domestic drama and mystery. Vittoria’s dilemma is at the center of this. She must bargain her silence for her freedom, sacrifice her morals to be a good daughter. But she is also a product of a longer history of women like herself.
Secrets held for decades, the kind begotten by forbidden love, are as much a part of the estate and the fabric of life in the vineyards as the vines themselves. These unraveling mysteries push and pull Vittoria, Paolo, Umberto, and Carlo in all directions. The emotional and real famine of war force these long buried secrets to emerge on the surface. As the Americans and Allies bomb Italy in order to free it, Vittoria, Carlo, Paolo, Umberto San Antonio, and others scramble for safety and try, hard as they can, to keep these secrets under cover.
Overall, a good read, especially for readers who enjoy themes of class conflict, gender histories, and ensemble casts of characters, and domestic mysteries.