British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, offers the readers of INNOCENCE (her sixth novel) a delightful tale of modern Italian life by tracking the activities of the Ridolfi clan, an old, distinguished family surviving mainly on its reputation. Fitzgerald begins with an anecdote about La Ricordanza, the ancestral family home, which was once owned by a sixteenth century Count Ridolfi. Ridolfi, his wife, and their daughter were all midgets, and he arranged his daughter’s world so that she never saw anyone but midgets. A famous stairway was constructed specifically to accommodate her short legs. Fitzgerald seems to be suggesting that, from the outset, the Ridolfi family lived in a world of its own devising.

Chiara Ridolfi, the heroine of INNOCENCE, sets into motion a complex series of events when--at the age of eighteen--she suddenly falls in love with Salvatore Rossi, a brilliant but impoverished neurologist from the southern town of Mazzata. Their stormy and passionate courtship provides Fitzgerald with a pretext for analyzing the whole spectrum of Italian society a decade after the end of World War II. The cast includes Annunziata and Bernardino, feisty and overly assertive servants; Monsignor Gondi, the only member of the Ridolfi family to enter the Church; Giancarlo, Chiara’s genial but feckless father; Maddalena, her eccentric and unpredictable aunt; Cesare, her inscrutable and taciturn cousin who manages the Ridolfi vineyard at Valsassina; and, finally, Comrade Gramsci, the idealistic Communist whose ideas ruined the life of Salvatore’s father.

Fitzgerald’s prose is sparse and beautifully measured; her chapters are brief and tight, allowing her to shift back and forth among her wonderfully diverse characters and juxtapose one against another. She can formulate a character or social situation in a single, witty phrase. Her tapestrylike descriptions evoke an Italy filled with Fiats, climbing roses, grapes, Renaissance villas, and picturesque valleys. Anyone interested in the human comedy will be entertained--and enlightened--by INNOCENCE, a little novel of gemlike perfection.