The Betarrini sisters are the daughters of two archeologists with a passion for Etruscan history. The girls have spent every summer in Italy, mostly bored by the endless search for more ruins and the task of excavating and documenting what their parents find. At 17, Gabriella longs for a normal summer back home in Boulder, Colorado, where she can meet some cute guy and go on dates.
However, nothing about Gabriella's life is normal. Her father died, a few months before the opening of Waterfall, in an automobile accident, and her mother's grief has channeled itself into work, while the two girls are left to care for themselves.
The girls' time-traveling adventure begins when Gabriella (Gabi) and her younger sister (Lia, age 15), surreptitiously enter an Etruscan tomb their mother has recently discovered. They find two handprints on the wall, one which fits Gabi's left hand, and one which fits Lia's right hand. When they simultaneously place their hands on the wall, they are transported back to the early 14th century, though not together (for reasons that are later explained in the book, and which I won't spoil here).
Emerging from the tomb, Gabi finds herself in the middle of a battle between the forces that support Siena and the forces that support Florence (Firenze). She nearly dies moments after her arrival, but in the best knight-in-shining-armor fashion, Gabi is rescued by Sir Marcello Forelli who becomes her love interest.
The first book introduces themes that are foundational to all three. First, it's a "stranger in a strange land" story which considers the difficulties of a 21st-century girl passing herself off as a lady in the 14th century. Bergren handles this fairly well by giving Gabi an unusual upbringing: She speaks Italian and Latin, she knows a fair amount about the history of the 14th century, and -- most importantly -- she knows how to wield a sword, thanks to her father's training.
Waterfall is also a love story. Marcello is the first guy who has ever shown any romantic interest in Gabi, and she's not quite sure how to deal with that fact, not to mention the pesky problem of whether there's any future in falling in love with a guy who she'll leave behind once she returns to her own time. Third, it's a quest story, as Gabi spends most of the book searching for her lost sister, who, as it turns out, is being held captive.
Eventually, the two sisters are reunited and the real adventure begins as they must fight to survive (Lia, an archer, is even more skilled in the use of her weapon than Gabi). Because they fight alongside the supporters of Siena and lead them to an important victory, the two sisters are dubbed "The Two She-Wolves of Siena," an honor which will cause them a great deal of trouble in the next two books as they become targets of Siena's enemies in Florence. (Bergren effectively uses the real history of the conflict between Florence and Siena as a backdrop, while never allowing its history to overpower her story.)
As an adventure story, all three novels are suspenseful enough to keep readers turning pages. However, parents should be aware that these books, like The Hunger Games, contain a great deal of violence. One of the issues Bergren explores is how modern people, used to living in safety and security, would respond if they suddenly found themselves living at a time when "kill or be killed" is a daily reality. Their mother may have been a pacifist in the modern world, but when she joins the girls in the 14th century, she soon picks up a staff and learns to fight for those she loves. While the descriptions are not particularly graphic, the sheer number of people dying violent deaths is staggering -- and may make the books unsuitable for more sensitive pre-teens.
As a love story, the River of Time offers a much healthier view of love and marriage than the obsessive relationship between Edward and Bella in the Twilight books. Marcello has all the right instincts when it comes to loving, cherishing, and protecting the people he loves. They remain chaste before marriage, despite strong temptation. When a wavering Gabriella asks, "Who would know if we didn't [wait]?" Marcello answers, "God. And if it is He who has brought us together, should we not honor Him in this way?" Gabi then realizes, "I couldn't do that to him. To either of us. To our future. We'd made a promise, and I didn't want anything, anything to get in the way of that promise. I didn't want our union to be less-than, tarnished, shadowed, robbed of its potential power" (309).
Bergren not only emphasizes how a good marriage is built upon a desire to seek the best for the other person, she also brings in the family element. Gabi's family is involved in her decision to marry since both she and Lia must place their hands on the wall in order for them to get back to their own time: It's an all or nothing proposition. For Gabriella to marry Marcello, the rest of her family must also choose to remain in the past, a situation fraught with danger, and not simply from the continuing conflict between Siena and Florence. They know the Black Plague, which savaged 14th-century Europe, is coming within another decade. To choose to stay in the 14th century thus requires an attitude toward life and death that is fueled by the family's newfound faith in God.
In my mind, what makes the River of Time series a most worthy read is the spiritual element that Bergren deftly weaves throughout the three books. In the beginning, Gabriella is a modern teenager whose religious faith is nominal at best. Her family attends church on Easter and Christmas, but they are agnostic in their daily lives, leaning toward scientism. Gabi is thrust into a culture where references to God and prayer are as normal as breathing, something she's initially uncomfortable with. However, as her life -- and the lives of those she loves -- are repeatedly threatened, Gabi utters some "God help!" prayers, proving the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Over time, Gabi begins to think through important spiritual questions. Like the historical elements in these books, the spiritual elements are skillfully presented: Bergren never gets preachy or heavy-handed.
As a bonus, each book ends with a series of discussion questions for readers, as well as interviews with the author that shed light on history and on her creative writing process. The questions make it easy for parents to read and discuss the books with their daughters, or for teenagers to read and talk about on their own.
If you're looking for good books to give the teenage girls on your Christmas list, I can't think of a better choice than the River of Time series.
Image copyright David C. Cook. Review copies obtained from Amazon.
Diane Singer is an English professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.