I have just discovered a new author – Christopher Castellani. Castellani has written a trilogy about an Italian Immigrant family, the Grassos, which begins and ends in St. Cecelia, a small village in Italy where the novel’s main characters, Maddalena and Antonio, meet and marry.
Because it arrives first from the library, I begin reading the trilogy in the middle with The Saint of Lost Things. In this novel, set in the fifties in Wilmington, Delaware, the Grassos are just starting out, searching for their American Dream. Antonio works on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company while Maddalena rides the bus to a factory in Philadelphia where she bends over a sewing machine all day making blouses and robes. Any extra money they make gets sewn into a special pocket Maddalena has fashioned into the cornice of the drapes. The Grassos live with Antonio’s family in the Italian neighborhood in Wilmington, a tight-knit community, ten square blocks with the Catholic church, St. Anthony’s, at the center. The church, the houses of other families and Italian restaurants are all places where they gather on Sundays and for every important family event. The huge family gatherings are marvelous. On Christmas Eve, the women begin preparing food a week in advance, they make twelve pounds of pasta and seven different kinds of fish, delicate sauces and sweets galore. These gatherings are filled with the kind of big emotions that come with big families – passion, jealousy and love, so much love.
Castellani peoples his novel with lost souls, characters who long for past loves, past lives, new relationships and who dream of things apparently out of reach. Maddalena misses her family back in Italy desperately, she thinks about the man she might have married, and envies the women around her who are all having babies while she has been unable to conceive. Antonio has “too many dreams,” he says, “I want us to have it all.” For Antonio “all” means owning a restaurant and a shiny Cadillac, a house in the suburb of New Castle and three kids at play in their yard. Their friend Giulio Fabbri has lost his parents and, even in his forties, finds it almost impossible to live without them. As Giulio and Maddalena’s become friends, Giulio begins to open up, to sing and play music again. Finally he can find comfort in the memory of his parents and hope that he may find a new kind of life with a new kind of family. “Love is life! Life is love!” Maddalena tells him.
Love and especially family love is at the center of this novel. At the end, the extended Grasso family gathers for a picnic on the beach. Maddalena happily watches their daughter, Prima, playing with Antonio on the beach. They still have dreams. But they have realized the most important ones. They have love and family. I’m highly recommending this novel, all of Castellani’s novels actually.
And I don’t feel like I’ve explained how beautifully Castellani writes. Here’s a sample:
Maybe it’s the second manhattan, or the perfection of the fish, or the sense that nothing matters that comes after you spend lots of money you don’t have, but whatever it is, Frankie hears himself say to Kelly Anne McDonald, “You will,” and after he does, it’s as if he’s just plugged her into an electrical socket. Her eyes widen. She sits up two inches taller. It’s possible that her teeth get whiter. She calls the waiter over and orders a manhattan for herself. In her mind, the occasion calls for a libation.
This quote is from Castellani’s most recent novel, All This Talk of Love, the final in the trilogy. Because after I read The Saint of Lost Things, I needed to read more Castellani. I missed the Grassos, so I picked up his latest novel and read that. I loved that one too, maybe even more than I liked the first one. In this novel, Antonio and Maddalena are older, their children, Prima and Francis, are adults with children of their own. Their son Francis (Frankie of the above quote) is a graduate student, another lost soul searching for an academic life that makes sense, their daughter Prima, their first-born and a baby at the end of The Saint of Lost Things is the mother of three teenage sons, the last of which is about to go off to college. For Prima, the empty nest is a frightening place. She has always been close to her sons, a little too close probably. Coupled with that, she sees her parents beginning to fail physically and mentally and realizes that they won’t be around forever. It’s her idea to take the entire family back to St. Cecelia, their ancestral village, for the trip of a lifetime. But things happen throughout the novel which postpone the trip. At first, Maddalena refuses to go, and Frankie sides with his mother. Then there is an accident. When the trip finally happens, it’s different from everyone’s original expectation, and meaningful for each of them individually for different reasons.
This novel is funny and poignant and, again, filled with family love. I laughed out loud (at the section quoted above where Frankie has just told his girlfriend something she is so excited about she is fit to burst) and, at the end of the novel I couldn’t keep the tears from spilling down my cheeks. This novel, too, is full of life and well worth the read.
So here’s my suggestion for a different kind of summer reading. Read something new, an author you haven’t read before and then read everything that author has written I’ll probably think of this summer as The Summer of Castellani. Now I just have to order up that first novel in the trilogy, A Kiss from Maddalena, and then I just might have to read them all through in order, again. If you’re already familiar with Christopher Castellani, find someone else. Take a walk to your neighborhood independent bookstore and check out the new fiction, ask for a recommendation. It’s something I always love to do and why not do it in the summer? So much to read, so much extra daylight — a perfect combination!