I knew from the first few pages that I would enjoy The Betrothed. It has all of the things I most enjoy in literature: historical substance, direct appeals to the reader by the author, books within books, multitudes of footnotes, digressions into the lives of minor characters, digressions within digressions, "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles" -- well, almost. There aren't any giants, as I recall, and only human monsters.
The story purports to be about the trials and travails of a pious peasant girl, Lucia, and her more hot-blooded fiance, Renzo. The pair are engaged, but a powerful local lord makes a bet with his cousin that he will bed Lucia and sends some bravoes to intimidate the local priest into not marrying them. Their attempts to get around the lord and wed lead to their separation. Renzo ends up in the middle of a riot and is nearly hanged for treason, Lucia is entrusted to the care of a wealthy nun who sells her out to keep her many sins concealed, and eventually the pair are caught in the middle of a devastating wave of bubonic plague. Will Renzo and Lucia reunite? By the time this question is answered, it's hardly the point; this is a clear case in which the journey is what's important, not the destination.
Bruce Penman's translation is readable and modern without being anachronistic; it compares favorably with Edith Grossman's recent version of Don Quixote. Manzoni himself is a little too heavy on the religion, but despite the rather obvious moralizing and convenient conversions to the one true faith by a couple of characters, the novel is still more engaging than plodding. Manzoni himself highlights the passages that can be skimmed by readers with a low tolerance for digression (a lengthy biography of a famous archbishop, for example), but the descriptions of 17th century Italy are like nothing I'd seen and so I read the whole thing. While Manzoni does set the historical stage and show what large-scale political maneuverings are at work, he concentrates his gaze on the effect of these machinations on the individual characters, and thus brings history to life. Some of the best digressions are authorial discourses on the economic ignorance of 17th century Italians. Having the laws of supply and demand explained as an aside before the author describes a bread shortage was endlessly amusing to this econ major. You can almost hear Manzoni's eyes roll when he documents the wacky beliefs of his forefathers.
This is a fabulous book -- probably the best thing I read since Don Quixote. A book that can make you laugh out loud dozens of times nearly two hundred years after it was written is a true classic. It beats the pants off this beautifully written trifle, for example. Long after most of these are forgotten, Manzoni will continue to inform and delight. Highly recommended.
(The only thing I didn't understand (and this is a reflection of my own ignorance, not a shortcoming of the book) is why Father Cristoforo could not conduct the wedding. I assume this is not a privilege belonging to Capuchin friars. Is this right?)