Italo Calvino — The Baron in the Trees

The first book by Calvino I ever read; I don’t remember how old I was when I first picked it up but I do remember being slightly too young to probably fully appreciate it. But I think that says a lot about the book, that I could appreciate it so young and then still find new and wonderful things in it probably a decade and a half later. This is a book I will probably read to my children when they are too young to appreciate fully.

The Baron in the Trees is a fable, the story of a young nobleman, Cosimo, in a small Italian village estate in the 1700s, who after a fight with his family regarding a dish of snails for dinner (really) decides that he’s going to take to the trees and never set foot on the earth again. It’s not spoiling anything to say that he never does, even in death: that last scene is typically magical and fantastic. The book, narrated by Cosimo’s younger brother, spans the Baron’s entire life, and touches upon the upheavals in the world around them as well: financial difficulties for peasants, piracy, brigands, and eventually the French revolution.

This is also a book about determination and never giving in; being honest to oneself; the destructive power of love. It is also, as I have found with Calvino, a book about stories, and books, and the value of them. Cosimo tells tall tales to the peasants for most of his life in the trees, and the section of the book where he guides a brigand’s reading habits is one of the most touching things in the story. (I actually cried at what happens to his edition of Clarissa and considering I am NOT a fan of Richardson, I think that says something for Calvino!)

The Baron in the Trees is full of improbable adventure, one of the strangest and most wistful love stories I’ve ever read, and interesting thoughts on books and the value of a good story. It’s written in language that a ten year old can understand, but a twenty-five year old will find beautifully simple. That alone says a lot about what a fine book it is.


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