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Kate Bristow
Saving Madonna
Kate Bristow, author

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

Italy 1943. As the Allies bomb Milan, Elena Marchetti reluctantly gives up her coveted job as an art curator in the city to return to her family farm near Urbino. She takes up a new role assisting Pasquale Rotondi, the Superintendent of Arts in the region, in protecting works of art from all over Italy that have been hidden in the relative safety of the countryside. At a family celebration, Elena reunites with Luca, a close childhood friend. A shattering event instigated by the occupying Germans deepens their relationship, and they start planning a life together. When rumors surface that Italy’s art is being stolen by the German occupiers, Pasquale hatches an audacious plan to rescue the priceless paintings in his possession. Elena and Luca are forced to make an impossible decision: will they embark on a dangerous mission to save Italy’s cultural heritage?
Plot/Idea: 8 out of 10
Originality: 8 out of 10
Prose: 9 out of 10
Character/Execution: 8 out of 10
Overall: 8.25 out of 10


Plot/Idea: Set in 1943, Saving Madonna is a work of rich historical fiction set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Italy.  

Prose: The prose is well crafted, clear, and immersive. 

Originality: Bristow's World War II-era story stands apart through its focus on efforts to protect the art and cultural history of an occupied nation. 

Character/Execution: Bristow succeeds in creating a novel that is driven in equal parts by plot and character development. Elena, Luca, Pasquale, and the other main characters are fully realized and believable, while the historical settings are finely established. 

Date Submitted: August 20, 2023

Bristow’s debut examines the often-painful cost of freedom against the backdrop of the Second World War. In Northern Italy, the citizens are suffering under German occupation, and the men are facing terrible choices: deportation as forced labor for the Germans, or conscription into Mussolini’s fascist militia. Farmer’s son Luca feels the pull to fight for his country and join the nascent Italian resistance, but he also knows he’s needed at home. His younger brother, however, is bent on joining the partisans, no matter the cost. Meanwhile, Luca’s childhood friend Elena has returned from an art apprenticeship in Milan—and she’s more beautiful and charismatic than ever.

The harrowing circumstances faced by Italians during World War II are powerfully rendered as Bristow surveys a fraught and fascinating time with an eye for telling detail. Spirited Elena is devoted to the arts and willing to risk her life—and the lives of those she loves—to save them from the Germans. “If those beautiful paintings and sculptures and tapestries… are gone, we’ll have lost part of our humanity,” she beseeches Luca to convince him to join her cause. That cause involves placing herself in grave danger, as she assists Pasquale Rotondi (a real-life figure) in secreting famous works of art to the Vatican for safekeeping. Luca, who quickly falls for Elena, vows to help her, a decision that will have disastrous consequences for them both.

The story contains the customary German adversaries, but Bristow endows them with a chilling realism that brings the characters’ experiences to life—whether that’s the brutal murder of a young boy trying to help the partisans, or the understandable revenge Luca’s brother eventually takes on a cruel German major. The crux of this touching novel is the characters’ rousing willingness to sacrifice it all—after all, “what [is] the point of simply surviving if you ended up losing what matter[s]?”

Takeaway: Powerful novel of Italy’s Resistance during the Second World War.

Comparable Titles: Jennifer Anton’s Under the Light of the Italian Moon, Laura Morelli’s The Last Masterpiece.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A