This is a haunting historical novel set in a symbolic, biblical garden invoking comparison to the Garden of Eden. The time and local is Ferrara, Italy on the eve of World War II. The Finzi-Continis are a Jewish family of aristocratic means, purposely separate from the other Jews of Ferrara. Their garden is a vast, walled enclosure not easily penetrated. The anonymous narrator gains access as a young university student and falls hopelessly in love with Micol, the beautiful Finzi-Continis daughter. He’s been invited to play tennis in the Finzi-Continis garden. Because the new racist laws prevent Jews from socializing with Christians at the local tennis club, Micol and her brother Alberto host a regular tennis party in their walled garden for their friends.
The garden is some twenty acres with winding paths that the narrator and Micol and Alberto explore on bicycle, all the while Micol tellling stories about the garden, mesmerizing the narrator. There’s a group of seven tall desert palms toward which she feels great tenderness.
“’There they are, my seven old men,’ she might say. ‘Look at their venerable beards!’ Really – she would insist – didn’t they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance. What “holiness” in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly! They look like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts.
Though Micol loves the trees of her garden, she has mixed feelings about the narrator. She alternately encourages him and rejects him, leaving him flustered and humiliated.
Though not in the least concerned with the art of gardening, “before-the-fall Garden of Eden symbolism” permeates the story. The family has tried to wall themselves in, away from the other Jews and from the coming cloud of Nazism. Micol, true to her family’s tradition, can only see herself as separate from Jews like the narrator. Bassani leaves her with her pride intact. He ends his story before she and her family are subsumed into the far-reaching annihilation of the Holocaust as foretold in chapter one. It’s a hopeless love story embedded in a tragic time.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made into an award winning film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970.