Maria Riva’s You Were There Before My Eyes shares the experiences, thoughts and feelings of American Immigrants through the life of Giovanna, “Jane”; a plain but thoughtful young Italian teen who jumps into a marriage of convenience to escape her small village life and loss of her mother. Beginning in the late 1800s, the story follows Jane’s trans-Atlantic journey to Henry Ford’s Michigan, where her husband is a prominent engineer. A diverse cast of rich and captivating characters fills out the story and provides additional perspectives. Jane’s unique experience is highlighted; from learning the language and customs, to settling in a new town with new friends, to discovering the woman she truly is.
Even non-history fans will appreciate You Were There Before My Eyes. The attention to detail and inclusion of the many of Jane’s experiences provides an authentic perspective on turn of the century life for resident aliens. I enjoyed Riva’s writing style and recreation of history so much that I really wasn’t bothered that it took well into the book to figure out the plot-line. Riva’s picturesque language overflows each page captivating the reader, providing rich and vivid details layered between the terrifying but awe-inspiring experience of moving to a new country that abounds in choices. But this is not just a history book. Jane’s personal development and how each secondary character’s story plays out were very intriguing. I found myself reflecting frequently on the time period and Jane’s thoughts and actions, contemplating how much life and attitudes have changed while in some ways following the same patterns generation after generation.
You Were There Before My Eyes by Maria Riva earned four stars from me. While not everyone will like the slow pace of the plot, which allows Riva to share and abundance of historical detail and experience, I did. The thoroughness of the storytelling truly felt like a window to the past. Most of the book felt like a leisurely walk through the woods, taking time to really see the the sights and smells and sounds. My biggest issue was when the events leading up to WWII spilled across the ocean and affected Jane, her family and friends. At this point it felt like the story went from nature walk to drag race and was done. I would have loved to see the same attention to detail concerning each character continued, which would have lengthened the book considerably.
You Were There Before My Eyes. It is a wonderful read for history buffs or anyone fascinated with turn of the century immigrants.