In A Dragonfly in Winter, by Helen Pryke the granddaughter of the last Innocenti healer, Sara is rebellious, angry, and alone. Alienated from her parents, Sara finds solace in the abandoned cottage used by her grandmother where dragonflies appear, even in the depths of a Tuscan winter. With the help of Simone, the Innocenti’s head groom, Sara learns disturbing truths about her family’s past and discovers her own hidden abilities to heal and comfort. Disowned by her parents, Sara must make a difficult decision: to leave and follow her destiny or to stay and appease her parents. When economic hardship causes a rebellion among the local villagers, Sara fears for her parents and fears the curse that is rumored to be a part of the Innocenti legacy.
Theme of the Book
This is a novel of self-discovery and of deep spiritualism. There is a hint of magic in the appearance of the dragonflies that is mirrored in the magic the characters engender through love, loyalty, and honor.
What I Liked About the Story
This is the third book in the author’s saga of the Innocenti family. The story takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time of great social upheaval. Mechanization has come to agriculture, replacing the workers who had tilled and harvested the fields by hand. Political changes, including the First World War, upset social conventions and disrupted millions of lives. In the midst of these changes, the author has set Sara, a woman who is determined to follow the tradition of healing that has been part of her family legacy for hundreds of years. When the novel opens, Sara is the rebellious daughter of a very conservative Tuscan family. She is completely unaware of the pain her family is causing the local villagers by their conversion to more mechanical ways of working the land and is simply determined to live her life in the way she thinks best. She is fortunate to find Simone, the head groom, who can talk to her about her history and about her grandmother’s skill at healing. Sara’s personal growth throughout the story is evident as she changes from a stubborn young woman to a patient, caring healer. The dragonfly, prominent in all three of the author’s books about the Innocenti, is a symbol of personal growth and change in many cultures. When the dragonfly leads Sara to the grove of herbs, it is leading her on a journey to maturity and self-confidence. The spiritualism in the novel is not religious in form but centers on the spirits of those who have died. Sara’s grandmother, for example, does not appear as a ghost but as a guide. Anna-Maria, the soul finder, listens to the spirits of the condemned and helps them to find peace. These are not the ghosts of Stephen King, but the spiritual legacy each of us carries from our families that serves to guide each person on the path of self-acutalization.
What I Didn’t Like About the Story
The novel is quite short and so many of the events and characters are given more as sketches than as fully developed elements. Some characters that have minor, though important, roles to play are little more than stereotypes: the angry father, the handsome but restless lover, the strict but dedicated servant. The reader is told of the misery of the local villagers who have lost their jobs because of Sara’s parents’ decision to make their estate more efficient. However, the author gives us no real reason for that decision and never really shows how it changed the villagers’ lives. Tells, yes. Shows, no. The Innocenti saga seems oddly constructed. The author sets the first book in modern-day Tuscany; the second switches points of view from modern-day to 14th century Europe and back again; the third is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a clear connection between the first and second books, but the third seems to be an add-on with not many ties to the past or the future.
I enjoyed the first two books of the Innocenti saga but the third one was missing the drama and the emotion that was a key element in the first two books. I found it predictable yet sketchy. Readers who liked the first books will enjoy this one but not to the same extent.