The Italian Ballerina

The Italian Ballerina by Kristy Cambron is one of those books that makes you want to put everything aside and just read.

Delaney Coleman has just returned home to help her parents after the death of her grandfather. She learns that they’ve received notices from a family in Italy saying they have a claim to something of her grandfather’s. Delaney’s mom has ignored the messages, but Delaney looks into the claim.

She speaks to Matteo, who says that Delaney’s grandfather owned a small ivory suitcase printed with cherries on the outside. He claims that the suitcase belongs to his grandmother, and she’d like to have it back. His family offers to fly Delaney and the suitcase to Rome.

Intrigued and confused, and as a writer “between pens,” as she puts it, Delaney decides to accept the offer. In Rome, Delaney meets Calla, Matteo’s grandmother. Calla can’t speak English, but she gazes at Delaney and says, “Salvatore.” Delaney and Matteo work together to learn the connection between their grandparents.

Scenes switch back to Delaney’s grandfather’s time before and during WWII. Court Coleman had gotten himself into trouble and pushed away Penelope, the girl he loved. Roped into helping Penn’s father at their orchard in order to pay off his debts, Court begins to settle down and wonder if he might have a chance with Penn again. But then America enters WWII, and Court is sent to Italy as a medic.

One day as his unit is on a reconnaissance mission, Court and his commanding officer, AJ, are stranded while a Nazi troupe is rounding up Jews. They are horrified to watch the Nazis shoot a couple in cold blood and leave their daughter in the streets. Against orders, Court rescues the girl and is injured in the process.

He wakes up in an Italian hospital. He finds that he is in a quarantine ward, where a mysterious, deadly illness called Syndrome K is running rampant.

Except—Syndrome K is a made-up illness, created to keep the Nazis away from the ward while the doctors and Catholic priests who own the hospital hide and send out Jews.

A British ballerina named Julia and her partner are stranded at the hospital as well while he heals from a gunshot wound in his leg. She helps Court and A. J. and the little girl with them, as well as the doctors in the ward.

Unfortunately, the audiobook I listened to did not include the author’s information about what parts of the story were true, and our library system didn’t have a copy.. But the part about Syndrome K was real, as detailed here.

There are many strands nicely woven together in this novel, many developing relationships, and the unfolding mystery of the connection between Matteo’s and Delaney’s grandparents. The Amazon description says, “Based on true accounts of the invented Syndrome K sickness, The Italian Ballerina journeys from the Allied storming of the beaches at Salerno to the London ballet stage and the war-torn streets of World War II Rome, exploring the sometimes heart-wrenching choices we must make to find faith and forgiveness, and how saving a single life can impact countless others.”

I’ve gotten used to time-slip novels that go back and forth between history and present day. Kristy has written a few with three timelines. The only problem was that the scenes flashing back to Court’s earlier life weren’t in chronological order. The first scenes were in Italy during WWII–then there’s a scene at Penn’s family’s orchard before the war. The same thing happens with Julia’s timeline. The format made it a little confusing and jarring, although it only took a sentence or two to get reoriented. I had to train myself to listen for the date and location listed at the beginning of each chapter, which is a little harder to do with an audiobook.

But other than that, I loved everything about this book. I wanted to race to see what happened, yet didn’t want it to end.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Barrie Kreinik.