Monday, 18 June 2012

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani | Fated love

Ok, so I'm not overly fond of "love stories", but The Shoemaker's Wife is just such a different "boy meets girl" that I could not help but fall in love with it. Northern Italian Ciro and his brother are raised in a convent after their father dies and their mother takes ill. Further up the mountain lives Enza, a strong young girl who will do anything for her family of mother, father and six children. When tragic events lead to the first meeting between Enza and Ciro, it seems destined that the two are made for each other. However, soon after their meeting, Ciro sees something he should not have seen, and he is sent away to America. Back in Italy, Enza's family faces disaster after they are evicted from their rented home and their loyal horse dies. With poverty looming, Enza sees no other option but to try her luck in America and send money back to her family. But without knowing the wherabouts of the other, are Enza and Ciro's paths destined to cross in the land of the free? Or will the timing always be just off the mark?

The story is set in the early 1900s. Italy is struggling, and everyone who can raise the funds, leave for America in the hopes of creating a better tomorrow. This is a period of great social differences, and this affects the characters in different ways. Ciro is lucky and is taken in by a shoemaker, so he learns the trade and soon starts dreaming of his own venture. Enza is less lucky, working day and night sewing clothes, whilst being treated like a maid by her landlady. But Enza's friend Lauren is determined to get them out of the gutter and into the flashing lights of Manhattan, and together they start planning their "escape".

Throughout this, Enza and Ciro keep meeting, then missing each other. And when Ciro signs up to fight in the first world war after being misinformed that Enza has gone back to Italy, Enza refuses to keep her life on hold for him. Enza's life is changing for the better, and she is enjoying the good life. She has a boyfriend that spoils her, and surely that is better than the ever-changing Ciro with his many lady friends.

This is a book about love that transcends space and time. Our heroes are star-crossed lovers attempting to defy destiny. Two strong themes are the importance of friends and family, and these notions seem to drive the plot forward. For Ciro, a lot of his actions are focused in some way around his brother. Enza sacrifices everything for her family, but it is her friend Lauren that teaches her to also do things for herself.

The novel is an interesting exploration of Italian culture in America, as well as the immigrant experience. The characters face hardships as well as good times on their way through life. What I find interesting is that Trigiani refrains from glorifying her characters (too much), but rather paints them as vivid and lifelike as she can. In all, The Shoemaker's Wife is a beautiful story that brings you to a different time and place where you can hear the opera music and the sewing machines and smell the gnocchi.  

Friday, 1 June 2012

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon | Downton Abbey meets Jane Austen

So I've never read Fay Weldon before, but my boss got a preview copy of her new novel Habits of the House and asked if I was interested, and how could I say no? Luckily I had a blast reading it. If Jane Austen had written the script for Downton Abbey, it might have come out something like this! Fun, sharp and a plot that keeps thickening and keeps you guessing right until the end. It's due for release in July, so you have something to look forward to!

October 1899. Disaster strikes the Earl of Dilberne and his family as his attorney Mr Baum informs him that the gold mine they've invested in in South Africa has been flooded. The family's bills are piling up, and since Rosina, the daugther of the house is a "new woman", it falls on Arthur, the son, to marry for money. But Arthur keeps a mistress that he is not ready to part with and sees no reason why he should be the one to make sacrifices.

Meanwhile, the wealthy and beautiful Minnie O'Brian and her mother Tessie come on a ship from Chicago in search of a husband with a title for Minnie. But Minnie is a girl with a past, and soon all the servants in the Earl's household know all the details of Minnie's secrets and are determined to prevent any disgrace on their household.Do Minnie and Arthur have a chance at happiness against these odds?

In the middle of this, Lady Isobel is stressing about a charity dinner where the Prince, who is a friend of her husband, will attend. With their current money problems, will she have to compromise the amount of courses? And will she be forced to extend an invitation to Mr Baum's wife, who *shudder* lives in the wrong part of London?

The characters are all over the place, and I love it. All of them have their flaws, from the servants who spy on and gossip about their "betters", to the men who keep mistresses while expecting the women to be virgins, and the women who will ignore someone based on where they live or where their money comes from. Weldon's ridicule of her characters is hilarious and entertaining.

1899 is a period of great changes, and these changes make up an important part of the plot. Feminism has entered the stage and "masculine" behaviour is being challenged. Meanwhile, being a lord is no longer equivalent to wealth, and being from trade is no longer equivalent to poverty. Keeping the bloodline "pure" is also losing its value as the need of money becomes more pressing.   

The whole plot of the novel runs over the course of two months, and the structure makes it interesting. Each chapter has a date and time, as well as a title literally explaining what will happen in the chapter. The style works really well. The final chapter is a newspaper entry which pulls it all together and gives us all the answers without being too obvious.

Habits of the House is the first novel in a new trilogy, and I really look forward to reading the next installments. Hope they are due for publication soon too.