Friday, October 4, 2013

Back to Italy

I've read two lovely novels recently that brought me back to gorgeous Italy, the backdrop for the first chapters of The Lost Legacy of Gabriel Tucci.

Christopher Castellani's A Kiss From Maddalena

The novel opens here:
From the air, the village of Santa Cecilia appears in the shape of a woman lying down. If you’d been a pilot flying over it—on your way to Germany of Africa or some other place to drop bombs—you’d have noticed how the main road forms a kind of spine leading to a round piazza, where green trees fan out like hair over the hills, and four narrow roads grow into limbs at both ends. One of the woman’s arms cradles a cluster of white stone houses; the other stretches lazily into fields, in a way that suggests she is resting. Her legs straddle farms and orchards and a few scattered vineyards. She bends her knee at a curve just before an olive grove. If you’d been a pilot—young, maybe, one of the thousands of boys soaring over every week—you’d have had a woman’s figure on your mind anyway, and you’d have longed to land in this place, to hide with her from Hitler and Russia and the passo romano, and to lose yourself in the parts of her body you can only see up close.

In this brilliant passage, we are transported to an Italian village on the cusp of war. In the spring of 1943, most of the men have gone to fight. Except Vito, who falls obsessively in love with Maddalena, the youngest daughter of a prominent family. Vito caters to his mentally ill mother, is gangly and goofy, and thought of as a mama's boy. Maddalena is young, naive and unsure of her life's direction, but falls for Vito's sensitivity and kindness. 

She has gumption and determination, and is perhaps more inclined to love him because her family considers him a joke. When war intervenes, her family flees to the country while he stays in the village. Both are changed by war and on her return, she must choose love or family obligation. A bittersweet tale of love, sacrifice and duty, A Kiss From Maddalena is a masterfully written and stunning novel. 

Pamela Schoenewaldt’s When We Were Strangers 

Another beautiful opening: 

I come from the village of Opi in Abruzzo, perched on the spine of Italy. As long as anyone remembers, our family kept sheep. We lived and died in Opi and those who left the mountain always came to ruin. “They died with strangers, Irma,” my mother said over and over in her last illness, gasping between bouts of bloody coughing that soaked our rags as fast as I could clean them. “Your great-grandfather died in the snow with Frenchmen. Why?”

Irma Vitale is a young Italian seamstress at the end of the nineteenth century. With her mother gone and her father drinking too much, she leaves her beloved Italian village and sails across the ocean, hoping to find a new life in America and her older brother in Cleveland. But the voyage is rough; she is beaten and robbed, learning quickly to trust no one. Arriving in New York, she scrapes together enough money to eat and hop a train west. 

In Cleveland she finds not her brother, but unexpected friendship. Yet tragedy finds her again. Encouraged by a caring woman offering medical treatment to immigrants, Irma transforms her pain into a determination to help others. No longer a shy, guarded girl, she develops into a strong, courageous figure whose heart and resolve would make her mother proud.

The characters were richly drawn and Schoenewaldt weaves conflict and tension masterfully, with gritty details of what life was really like for immigrants during this tenuous time in America's history.


TripFiction Team said...

Great choice of two novels that really transport you to the early and mid 20th Century. Both capture parts of Italy so well.

Joan Mora said...

Thanks for stopping by, TripFiction!