Teenagers Enza and Ciro first meet over a gravesite in the village of Schilpario in the Italian Alps, which establishes ties that will last their lifetimes. The year is 1910, and money is tight. With his widowed mother unable to care for them, Ciro and his older brother have been raised in a convent by caring nuns – an arrangement which lasts until Ciro catches the priest in a compromising position. The nuns find a new situation for him, although it means he and his brother will be separated. Enza, the eldest daughter in a close family with financial problems, wisely knows better opportunities lie overseas and emigrates with her father shortly afterward.
Their stories proceed in parallel as Enza becomes a servant and factory worker in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then a seamstress for the Metropolitan Opera, while Ciro finds his calling as an apprentice shoemaker in New York City.
Ciro is handsome, strongly built, and popular with women, and Trigiani shows how his childhood abandonment makes him shy away from romantic commitment. (For a novel about a ladies’ man, the love scenes are quite clean.) Enza is smart and self-sacrificing, mailing nearly all of her earnings back to Italy to help her mother and siblings build a new home. There are several poignant moments as she realizes she’s allowed to live for herself, too. Neither Enza nor Ciro forgets the other, and circumstances – war, overlapping circumstances, random chance – draw them first together and then apart until they reunite at last and marry.
From the magnificent slopes of Italy’s Pizzo Camino to the Met’s impressively vast costume shop to the small mining towns of Minnesota’s Iron Range, the profuse amount of detail serves to enliven the plot. For immigrants who start out with little, so much about America feels awe-inspiring and new, and readers experience these sensations alongside them.
And the food! No novel celebrating Italian heritage would be complete without it, and the meal Enza and her Irish best friend, Laura, prepare for Enrico Caruso – gnocchi with sage, green salad, and wine – sounds scrumptious. He may be a world-famous opera star, but not even Caruso forgets where he came from.
The short sections covering Ciro’s WWI involvement feel sparse compared to the rest, especially considering the impact it has on him and his family. In the grand scheme of things, though, this may have been a wise move; it gives the novel a tighter focus.
Trigiani writes with a warm, comforting tone; her novel reads like the labor of love it is, one filled with the spirit of togetherness. Although Ciro and Enza are forced to become independent, neither is ever alone. They form enduring friendships with others who give them strength and become their second families. These connections help them endure the tragedies they face.
Seeing as it spans two continents and many decades, The Shoemaker’s Wife is a lengthy and immersive novel. Fortunately, the storytelling doesn’t drag, and the author’s thorough approach results in a deep look at Italian immigrant life and traditions and the seemingly little moments that define her characters’ event-filled lives.
And as a sidenote on unexpected connections, the Minnesota city where the Lazzaris settle was immediately recognizable to me as the place where a character from one of my favorite movies lived (someone based on a real person). It gave me a major “squee” moment to see him appear in the book.
At 475 pages, The Shoemaker's Wife qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge.