From within a large crowd, Luca watches as one of his father’s gondolas is burnt on a pyre, as part of the severe punishment for a foul-mouthed gondolier who disturbed the peace and insulted the wrong person. The man himself is sentenced to ten years as a galley slave.
Through Luca’s observant eyes, readers get an up-close look at the activities within the Vianello squero, or boatyard: the delicate carving of the wood, the selection of the ribs that form the different sections of each gondola, the varnishing and lacquering of the finished product. Morelli is an art historian, and her dedication to authenticity and interest in the gondola maker’s skill inform her work.
Despite their low status, gondoliers play an important part in Venetian life, and it’s enlightening to read about boatmen’s roles as driver and messenger – many Venetians would find it hard to conduct business without them – and the silent language they use to communicate with each other.
Against this classically romantic backdrop, the author creates a beautifully written tale about a young man’s pursuit of a life away from his hereditary duty – and the love for the craft that keeps calling him back. Following a pair of tragedies, Luca is forced to start over on a new path, one which eventually propels him into the company of a talented artist and of a green-eyed beauty whose portrait is being painted. All of Luca’s passions converge in his decision to restore a decrepit old gondola of his grandfather’s creation to its original, seaworthy state.
The plot is filled with descriptions of building façades, navigating and securing gondolas as they glide along the Grand Canal, and people’s dress and appearance. The pacing can be leisurely as a consequence, although all of these details are interesting to read about. While all of the action is seen Luca's viewpoint, the narrative also succeeds in evoking the restrictive, tough lives of women at this place and time.
Just like the gondolas themselves, the language is polished and smooth, and the story is worth reading for its depiction of a segment of society not often placed front and center. Kudos to the author, as well, for providing an atypical ending appropriate to her setting and characters.
The Gondola Maker was self-published this past March (301pp, including bibliography; $9.99 ebook, $16.49 trade pb, $29.99 hb). Thanks to the author for sending me a copy at my request.