"Set in Lombardy during the Spanish occupation of the late 1620s, The Betrothed tells the story of two young lovers, Renzo and Lucia, prevented from marrying by the petty tyrant Don Rodrigo, who desires Lucia for himself. Forced to flee, they are then cruelly separated, and must face many dangers including plague, famine and imprisonment, and confront a variety of strange characters the mysterious Nun of Monza, the fiery Father Cristoforo and the sinister Unnamed' in their struggle to be reunited. A vigorous portrayal of enduring passion, The Betrothed's exploration of love, power and faith presents a whirling panorama of seventeenth-century Italian life and is one of the greatest European historical novels"--P.  of cover.
First of all, like War and Peace, it is an historical novel with well-drawn characters inserted into an accurately described place and time. The novel takes place in Lombardy (the area in northern Italy surrounding Milan) between 1628 and 1631. It describes the story of Renzo and Lucia, and the extraordinary difficulties they encountered getting married. The centerpiece of the tale is the Great Plague of Milan, brought to northern Italy by French and German troops engaged in the 30-Years’ War. Manzoni’s description of the horrible conditions that descended upon Milan is riveting. I Promessi Sposi gives the reader great insight into the history and culture of post-renaissance Italy. Because the book is so good, one can absorb an enormous amount of history painlessly.
Secondly, because this is truly the greatest Italian novel, all educated Italians are familiar with it. I can promise the reader who travels to Italy that he will surprise those he meets when he displays familiarity with this beloved and extremely Italian work. I remember discussing the book with several Italians while having dinner in a small village near Milan. I mentioned an episode in the book that I said had taken place near Lake Como.
“Lecco!” I was instantly corrected. They all knew the book and my bonehead error was not allowed to pass.
Intellectually a child of the French Enlightenment, Manzoni became a devout catholic and the book reflects his deeply felt religious beliefs. Don’t let his didacticism put you off. This is a beautiful book. One hundred years ago it was standard reading even in America, but sadly it is largely ignored here. Get a copy and let Manzoni take you back to another place and time. It’s an adventure you will enjoy.
Lucia and Renzo are simple peasants, happily engaged and living in a small village near the town of Lecco. Renzo has a promising job, Lucia’s mother likes him – everything seems fine until the parish priest, Don Abbondio, is threatened to prevent him from marrying them. Renzo and Lucia stay pretty much the same throughout the book and are simple characters – Lucia is often found crying, fainting and praying and Renzo is frequently hot-headed and naïve. The other characters are more interesting however – one being Don Abbondio. He’s a coward who is mostly concerned with his own self-preservation. In a book full of conversions, with many portraits of benevolent religious figures, he remains a rather unsympathetic one. However, Manzoni spends many pages describing his inner conflicts and fears, with some occasional guilt and shame. He also sets Don Abbondio’s self-interest against the customs of the day, where the rich and powerful could get their way and could punish those who opposed them with impunity. Others counsel death before a failure of duty or courage but Don Abbondio is all-too-human in his fear. I enjoyed reading about him, despite his extreme cowardice and his being a major impediment to the couple’s happiness.
Don Rodrigo seems like he would be a stock evil aristocrat but Manzoni uses his character to explore the oppressive laws and customs of the time. Near the beginning of the book, he notes that the edicts, which were meant to curb extrajudicial violence, only ended up oppressing the poor. The laws never applied to powerful noblemen or the violent bravoes that they would hire to get their way. An example of this occurs when Renzo goes to a lawyer with his complaint that Don Rodrigo blocked his marriage to Lucia. The lawyer, thinking Renzo was the one who broke the law, is sympathetic at first but when he learns that Renzo is speaking of Don Rodrigo, the lawyer kicks him out and refuses to listen to him. Don Rodrigo avidly pursues Lucia but not out of love or lust – he barely even thinks of her as an object. Instead, he’s afraid to lose face in front of his peers by not getting what he wants (he has a bet with his cousin over Lucia) and also has an “eh, why not?” attitude when sending his posse out to harass her. His somewhat uninvolved attitude and the ease with which he ruins Lucia and Renzo’s lives illustrate the plight of the poor. Even when powerful but good people help them, it is still an example of the dependence of the lower classes.
The other characters who Renzo and Lucia meet are interesting as well – the formerly fiery, now repentant Father Cristoforo; the bitter and ambivalent nun Gertrude; the aristocratic criminal who is so powerful and feared that he’s called the Unnamed in the book; the saintly archbishop Federigo Borromeo. The last three are based on actual historical characters and their backstories are involving. They all play a role in Renzo and Lucia’s case but also are actors in the historical events that intrude. Renzo gets involved in the bread riots in Milan and Manzoni has descriptions of the famine that hit the city soon after. Their village also suffers from the passing German army and finally, the plague that decimated Milan and the surrounding countryside affects many of the characters and the outcome of the book. Highly recommended.
It makes a good read because the story is good, and the characters varied and genuine. It is also interesting to discover what Italy was like at that time, and how things were for people. It makes it easier to appreciate the liberty and relative lack of corruption which we enjoy in modern times, even if we sometimes think things are going to the dogs. Thing's definitely were worse in the past, and many novels don't show this. Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, set in a similar part of Italy, around 70 years after this one, makes all the problems of the time seem exciting, enticing. This novel treats them in the way a normal average man (Renzo) would, and it is revealing to see both sides of reality.
This is one of the first great novels of Italy, but also, uncharacteristically of Italy, wooden in its realist presentation of human experience. Verdi's Requiem is dedicated to Manzoni.
Manzoni writes the story as from the POV of poor people, and of both sexes--often the "Lucia" to the "Renzo" being the one most thoughtful. Manzoni's own moral of the Story drawn through his apology for "wearying" the reader ("we did not do so on purpose"): "...troubles certainly often arise from occasion afforded by ourselves; but that the most cautious and blameless conduct cannot secure us from them; and that, when they come, whether by our own fault or not, confidence in God alleviates them, and makes them conducive to a better life." 
- Lucia is a wet rag and faints in almost every chapter
- Renzo is a moron.
- The only cool character converts all of a sudden and becomes annoying as well.
- The pestilence at the end resolves everything with no showdown(lampshaded by one of the characters)
Can't compete with the other historical novels of the age
It was fun reading a book that took place where we were, albeit centuries earlier. And Manzoni's digressions from the main plot and characters, both of which were compelling, were fascinating - especially the account of the plague in Milan.
I read the public domain edition on my Kindle, so I'm not sure who the translator was, but I think this version suffered in the translation - as I found when comparing notes with my husband.