Saturday, July 07, 2012

Book review: The Shoemaker's Wife, by Adriana Trigiani

Adriana Trigiani's The Shoemaker’s Wife is an immense, and immensely enjoyable, epic that personalizes the immigrant experience in early 20th-century America. Through the story of Enza Ravanelli and Ciro Lazzari, characters based on her grandparents, she presents an affectionate portrait of how newcomers to these shores adjusted to a completely different way of life. Strong and determined, they not only achieved their own dreams but helped their families back home realize theirs.

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.

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The Shoemaker’s Wife was published by Harper in April at $26.99 in hardcover (475pp), including one of the most detailed acknowledgments sections I’ve seen! In addition to providing food for thought about the people who helped Enza and Ciro (and others like them) adjust to their new country, the novel concluded by making me ponder the family members, researchers, editors, agents, publicists, and more who aided the author over the 25 years it took her to create and publish her work.

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.

16 comments:

  1. Lovely review, Sarah. I loved this book and it will most likely make my list of favourites this year.

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  2. Thanks, Melissa! I've read two other Trigiani novels and this is my favorite so far.

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  3. I recently finished Don't Sing at the Table by Trigiani, which gives a wonderful account of her grandmothers. Then I bought this book having that background. Lovely review!

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  4. Thank you so much for letting me know about the earlier book! I didn't know it existed but will check it out.

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  5. I haven't read this author yet but this book sounds fantastic. I will definitely be checking it out :)

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  6. I especially enjoyed all the information about the Metropolitan Opera behind the scenes. And the early scenes in Italy, sad though some of them were. It's one of the most detail-rich novels about American immigration that I've read.

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  7. If set a few hundred miles south and a few decades earlier in Italy, this could be the story of my own great-grandparents! One of whom was a shoemaker's daughter. I will be reading this book!

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  8. Hope you'll like it! My great-grandfather emigrated to New York in 1905, and although he wasn't Italian, I'm sure many of his experiences were similar, coming to the US with no knowledge of English and slowly setting up his own business.

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  9. As a writer, my first response was an emotional disconnect between the title and the cover!

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  10. The title doesn't conjure up much of a cover design on its own, but this shoemaker's wife has a career of her own as a couturière. :)

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  11. I enjoyed your review! I went back and found it - I was trying to stay away from other reviews until I was able to write mine. So many of us have immigrant ancestors who arrived around the same time.

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  12. Trigiani is a very popular author and speaker around here. Her Big Stone Gap novels are perennial favorites; I read the first one and thought it was fine, just not really my cup of tea.

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  13. I haven't read the Big Stone Gap novels, but Queen of the Big Time wasn't quite my cup of tea either. It was rather lite, for lack of a better word; nothing wrong with that, I just expected more. This one was a lot meatier and more substantial.

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  14. As someone who grew up in one of those "small mining towns of Minnesota’s Iron Range" - a miner's daughter, even - I will definitely be picking up this book. I hope it gives the Range a fair shake! And while I'm not from the town you mention, I've been there countless times; it's got a great interpretative center that honors the stories of the immigrants of the area.

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  15. How cool that you have a connection to the setting, too. I enjoyed the descriptions of northern Minnesota; I've never been further north than Minneapolis, but Enza says it reminds her of the geography of where she came from in Italy. The novel talks a lot about the different cultural backgrounds of the immigrants living in Chisholm and Hibbing. At first I didn't appreciate the snobby town librarian (hmph!) but Enza eventually wins her over.

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