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Review: In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi

Friday, June 5, 2015

In a Dark Wood
Joseph Luzzi

Genre: Memoir
Hardback: 224 Pages
Publication: May 26, 2015
by Harper

In the aftermath of a heartbreaking tragedy, a scholar and writer uses Dante's Divine Comedy to shepherd him through the dark wood of grief and mourning--a rich and emotionally resonant memoir of suffering, hope, love, and the power of literature to inspire and heal the most devastating loss.

Where do we turn when we lose everything? Joseph Luzzi found the answer in the opening of The Divine Comedy: "In the middle of our life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood."

When Luzzi's pregnant wife was in a car accident--and died forty-five minutes after giving birth to their daughter, Isabel--he finds himself a widower and first-time father at the same moment. While he grieves and cares for his infant daughter, miraculously delivered by caesarean before his wife passed, he turns to Dante's Divine Comedy for solace.

In a Dark Wood tells the story of how Dante helps the author rebuild his life. He follows the structure of The Divine Comedy, recounting the Inferno of his grief, the Purgatory of healing and raising Isabel on his own, and then Paradise of the rediscovery of love.

A Dante scholar, Luzzi has devoted his life to teaching and writing about the poet. But until he turned to the epic poem to learn how to resurrect his life, he didn't realize how much the poet has given back to him. A meditation on the influence of great art and its power to give us strength in our darkest moments, In a Dark Wood opens the door into the mysteries of Dante's epic poem. Beautifully written and flawlessly balanced, Luzzi's book is a hybrid of heart-rending memoir and critical insight into one of the greatest pieces of literature in all of history. In a Dark Wood draws us into man's descent into hell and back: it is Dante's journey, Joseph Luzzi's, and our very own.


In a Dark Wood is a compelling memoir about Luzzi's journey through grief and the healing process following his wife Katherine's untimely death. A professor of Italian and a Dante scholar, Luzzi draws parallels between The Divine Comedy and his own experiences in the dark wood of grief.

Having studied English during my time as an undergraduate student, I appreciate how Luzzi relates Dante's great work to his personal experiences and finds meaning in one through the other (and vice versa). It's actually what drew me to this book in the first place, and I love how Luzzi intertwines his story with that of Dante's work. I do wish that I had read The Divine Comedy before picking up this book. It has been years since I've looked at Dante's work. While Luzzi does a good job explaining the connections that he makes between Dante's work and his own experiences, a refresher would have helped me to better understand the significance behind Luzzi's references from a more critical perspective (the casual reader shouldn't have too many problems).

That said, In a Dark Wood has a complicated narration. Luzzi not only intertwines his story following Katherine's death with that of The Divine Comedy, he also includes anecdotes from his college days and from his parents' lives. While I like all the connections that Luzzi makes, he jumps around a lot from scene to scene, from one point in time to another. Furthermore, though his book follows a general timeline, he does not entirely narrate events in chronological order, so it can be difficult to piece events together in their proper order, especially if you don't finish the book in one sitting. I would have preferred if Luzzi cut back on some points and focused more on the immediate storyline. I do appreciate how he ties in his Italian heritage and how he shows the importance of family and friends in his life. Luzzi shows the ups and downs and how his family supported him in his time of grief. The inclusion of his family members' stories also serves to show where he comes from and how it influences his relationships with different women.

In reflecting on his family, his personal experiences, and on Dante's work, Luzzi gives a profound commentary on love, life, and loss. As he tells his daughter Isabel at the end of his book, "it's not what lands you in the dark wood that defines you, but what you do to make it out—just as you can't understand the first words of a story until you've read the last ones" (quoted from ARC). In a Dark Wood is a heavy read in that Luzzi is weighted by his grief throughout much of the book. In his grief, he makes many poor decisions, including his neglect of his fatherly duties to Isabel, and he continuously finds himself unable to move forward with his life. The excruciatingly slow progress out of the dark wood can get frustrating to readers who haven't gone through similar experiences. Nevertheless, Luzzi's narration stays true to reality in showing readers the challenges of working through grief. Through it all, Luzzi is there reflecting on his thoughts and actions during his time in the dark wood, and he makes ample use of The Divine Comedy to comment on love and loss.

Content (contains potential spoilers)

  • Questions about the afterlife and if humans have a soul that lives on after death. (Includes some questions on religion and God's existence.
  • Relations with multiple women following Katherine's death, includes sex (not explicit).
  • In his grief over his wife's untimely death, Luzzi becomes an absent father and leaves much of the child-raising duties to his mother and his sisters. He also gets into heated arguments with some people, including a lover and his mother over his behavior. They aren't described in great detail.
  • I do not recall any language that ought to be mentioned. If there was any, they are few and sparse.

A copy was provided by Harper Collins for review

  • N/A

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About the Author

Joseph Luzzi holds a doctorate from Yale and teaches at Bard. He is the author of My Two Italies, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, and Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy, which won the Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies from the Modern Language Association. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Connect with Joseph
Website | GoodreadsFacebook | Twitter

This post was made as part of the TLC Book Tour for In a Dark Wood
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6 comments on "Review: In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi"
  1. A thoughtful, heartbreaking, yet inspiring read, and one that I fully intend to pick up very soon.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  2. Very interesting and what an emotional one.

  3. Sounds like a really intense and emotional read. Glad you enjoyed it!!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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