Last week we ended on a couple of serious cliffhangers. After a heated argument about God and religion with the company chaplain, Franco found the chaplain and his brother dead during the battle. With his final moments, Benny told him to flee and asked for forgiveness. Isabella, meanwhile, was railroaded into helping Susanna Martellino deliver her baby and then got stuck with babysitting duties. During the course of her duties, she developed a strong connection with the child of which Susanna is jealous. Susanna had just discovered them wrestling on the floor together and has kicked Isabella off of her property.
This week we read chapters 10 through 13.
(If you missed last week’s discussion, you can find it here.)
Isabella Roselli - A 23-year-old orphan woman (as of 1917) living at the Blessings Convent in Lucca. She earns the love of her fellow sisters with her ability to grow gardens and cook delicious meals even though she doesn’t believe their interpretations of God or enjoy the convent’s rituals. Has a strong relationship with DeAngelo Martellino and has donated much of her time to help the Venero family do good enough work to avoid being evicted by the Martellinos.
Franco Carollo - The youngest son of a family of four farmers who work the land owned by someone else. 21 years old (as of 1917). Questions everything. Similar to his mother. Slow, deliberate, contemplative. Currently serving in the Italian army; he just buried his older brother who was killed during the fighting.
The Venero family - a farming family on the land of the Martellino family. Mariano Venero, the man of the house, died in the war leaving his widow, Angelina, to try to care for their children and farm the land without him.
Susanna Martellino - Landowner’s wife in her mid-20s. Wife of Giovanni, mother to DeAngelo. A petty woman who is angry that she misjudged her husband’s wealth when she decided to marry him. Treats her servants poorly and recently became violently angry with Isabella.
The chapter starts with Franco burying his brother and then obeying his final command to flee; he walks for three days without sleeping before finally accepting an offer of food, fresh clothes, and a place to sleep before continuing on. It’s pretty clear that immediately after he’s suffering from shock and once he recovers from that he begins to suffer from some form of PTSD. After continuing to journey for a while he eventually arrives in Tuscany and begins to feel slightly better. And then, of course, he arrives at the Martellino vineyard.
Several months have passed, Isabella has not returned from the convent but Susanna drops DeAngelo off to be babysat by the sister whenever she’s in town. This always upsets her more as DeAngelo is only in a good mood immediately following such visits and Susanna’s manner has prevented her from acquiring a nurse or nanny who is both willing to stay and capable of meeting her exacting standards.
Franco works in the vineyard for several months when a storm rises in the early morning and threatens to flood the fields since Franco didn’t anticipate the storm and dam up the creek they used to irrigate. Since it’s only him and the Veneros there simply aren’t enough hands or strength to clear the blocked drainage ditch or belatedly dam the creek. But Angelina sends one of her children to fetch Isabella and she arrived with many of the sisters of the convent along with her. They manage to clear the drainage ditch, sweep the water out of the field, and pick the grapes and dry them. The harvest won’t be as good as it could have been, but disaster may yet be averted.
Angelina and the rest of the Veneros take Franco into town in an attempt to cheer him up after the near-disaster and because Angelina senses how badly the fighting broke him. And also to make sure he runs into Isabella, again. After spending some time with Isabella and Anna at Isabella’s vegetable stall Isabella leads him away and offers him some quality barrels for the wine he’s been fermenting. Franco marvels at the quality of the barrels, however when he and Isabella attempt to deliver them to the Martellino vineyard Giovanni storms out and demands he be allowed to make all decisions regarding the wine and refuses to allow Franco to use the new barrels until he makes a decision about them the next morning. Isabella tries to get Franco to stand up to Giovanni but he isn’t immediately receptive.
He thinks about what she said that night and confronts Giovanni with his superior knowledge of wine-making the following morning before Giovanni can refuse to use the new barrels. Giovanni is impressed with Franco’s knowledge and confidence and agrees to his plan. The wine is poured into the barrels and Franco finally realizes how attractive Isabella is. In her, he finally finds the first person he can talk to about the horrors he experienced at war.
Hooray! We have our first meetings between our protagonists in these chapters. And, frankly, it’s delightful. To be entirely frank with you all this is my second attempt to read this book and I quit the first time after the ham-handed inclusion of Benito Mussolini into the story. The earlier chapters are still weak and that version of Franco still comes off as being quite a bit more philosophical than he has any right being given his age, likely education level, and life experiences. But in these chapters, the story blooms beautifully!
I’m not a person given overmuch to caring about romances in my stories; I’ve been known to say more than once that I desperately need a story without them. But whatever failings Franco and Isabella had in interacting with others they fit perfectly together in this narrative. Through Franco’s eyes, we can see far more depth in Isabella than we’ve ever seen before. In her presence, we can see Franco being exactly what feels the most right for him to be. I feel it necessary here to point out that his glance down her shirt was a bit much, but everything else about their interactions was extremely well-written.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m happy with everything that happens in these chapters. I’ve been getting a bit frustrated with Giovanni Martellino. His wife is a prototypical shrew of the most abhorrent variety and I can’t stand her. But he seems to waver between being just as petty and mean-spirited as her and being a kind if not overly-generous vineyard owner. The wavering seems to mostly happen at the whims of the story. We can be thankful that Giovanni isn’t an important character to this narrative - that kind of wishy-washiness among main characters can kill even the most lovingly crafted of tales - but it’s still irritating.
I’m also a bit fed up with Giovanni and Susanna both being cheapskates who refuse to hire the appropriate help or pay people appropriate wages. They get away with it because Franco is desperate to prove himself and Isabella has decided she would do anything to help the Veneros, but it’s still awful of them and I don’t get the sense that the narrative is as upset with their behavior as I am.
Franco is planning a trip home, what will happen when he has to face his parents? Will there be conflict if and when he tries to return to Lucca? Will his budding attraction to Isabella be met in kind? If so, will she be able to leave the convent or can their feelings only lead to a depressing conclusion? Are you enjoying this book as much as I am? These are the questions bubbling around inside my skull. For the first time since picking this book up, I can hardly wait to continue reading. Next week we’ll read chapters 14 through at least 16. I will try to read through 17 but we’ll see how much time there is.