The cliffhangers from the reading last week were not as bold as the week before but we still had plenty of questions driving us forward. Franco has developed an attraction to Isabella and, given that this is a story, I expect her to return his affections at some point though there is no indication of it to this point. My immediate question was, can she even leave the convent to get married? A quick google search suggests that she can though it’s unclear how easy or difficult it may be. Susanna has gone off to try her hand at politics with the Nationalist party and Franco is additionally planning his first trip home to see his parents since impulsively joining the Italian army three years ago. As I said last week, I’m very interested to see what happens next, so let’s dive in!
This week we read chapters 14 through 17.
(If you missed last week’s discussion, you can find it here.)
Isabella Roselli - A young adult woman 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. Constantly in conflict with Susanna Martellino.
Franco Carollo - A young man, though still the youngest of a family of four who work the land owned by an unnamed land-owner. Questions everything. Similar to his mother. Slow, deliberate, contemplative. Buried his older brother after a battle before deserting the Italian army. Currently the manager at the Martellino vineyard. Planning a trip home to visit his parents.
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. At the end of the last section, she left on a trip during which she plans to enter politics with the Nationalist party.
Antonio San Stefano - Franco’s former sergeant. Originally from Sicily, he found himself short both a left hand a job with the end of the war.
Franco makes his journey home and is greeted like the prodigal son he is but things quickly turn sour. Bernardino blames Franco for Benny’s death, but not in the way Franco expected. Bernardino believes that because Franco took his trip to Rome that Benny was jealous for his own adventure and that that jealousy led directly to his death. After that outburst on the first night, they don’t speak of it again. Franco helps out around the farm with his father and eventually, the ice between them thaws enough for Franco to talk of his time in Lucca. That is when we learn that Isabella isn’t a nun at all.
During the train ride back to Lucca Franco finally admits his attraction to Isabella to himself and soon discovers that the war is ended as everyone around him begins celebrating.
When Franco arrives back in Lucca, high on the nationwide celebration, he races to meet Isabella at the convent but discovers Anna who informs him that both she and DeAngelo are very ill with a sickness that has already taken the lives of others. Giovanni and Susanna are both blaming Isabella for this turn of events.
Franco wakes the next morning to find that Elena, one of Angelina Venero’s children, had died. In the next scene, Giovanni and Susanna have a fight where Giovanni blames her for DeAngelo’s illness. Then in the next scene, Franco decides to take Bartolo Venero into town to give them a chance to talk about the grief and guilt Bartolo is expressing over his sister’s death.
Isabella and DeAngelo make it through the worst of the illness but are both still recovering when Susanna decides to go into town for another political meeting while Giovanni is elsewhere negotiating the sale of their wine. As we follow her into Lucca we discover that politics may not be the only thing on her mind when she takes politician Alfredo Obizzi’s hotel room key from him.
Time passes and without apparently ever directly discussing the subject, Franco and Isabella have begun flirting outrageously with each other. She also proves to be the brains of the operation as she again offers him advice and resources to help him achieve his goals that he never would have considered without her.
Franco presents her plan to Giovanni and it’s approved. He’s also told he can hire one other helper at the farm and then he’s commanded to deliver some wine to a restaurant in a nearby city. When he gets there he encounters his old sergeant, Antonio San Stefano. The former soldier is missing his left hand and unemployed, so Franco offers him the job at the Martellino vineyard.
As they are returning they accidentally bump into Isabella having dinner with Paolo. Franco is immediately jealous but she immediately invites the two newcomers in to dine with them and upon hearing that Antonio will be working at the vineyard mentions that she hopes this will mean she can convince Franco to eat with her more often, now. Antonio connives to give Franco and Isabella a few moments alone but returns with Paolo just as things were beginning to get more intimate.
Antonio makes quite a first impression at the vineyard. Giovanni is unhappy that Franco chose to hire a cripple but he and Angelina get along just fine when she shoves him around the olive tree grove. Meanwhile, Susanna’s affair doesn’t just have implications for her marriage. Obizzi’s politics rise to the level of scare tactics and he warns her that her ex-soldier employees may rise up to take her land.
Franco has been in town delivering wine and decides to visit Isabella. They spend a short time together and are about finally kiss but this time they are interrupted by Susanna. Isabella defuses the impending argument that Susanna always takes with her to protect Franco.
One interesting thing from the early part of this chapter is that we now see most of the characters talking about Christianity in a way that you’re unlikely to hear much of in the real world. Whether Catholic or Protestant most groups of Christians seem to view the Bible and its depictions of God extremely literally and take whatever rites and ceremonies they are taught very seriously. Originally it was just Franco questioning God which made sense because he was an inquisitive boy and then he saw his brother killed in war. But Isabella also has a different way of looking at things and Franco’s parents, independent of his influence, also seem to have abandoned their previously hardwired standard views.
I had originally expected part of this story, since it featured a convent and a young man questioning the nature of God and religion, to have a B-plot about making him believe in God again but based on these new revelations I’m beginning to question if that will happen. Admittedly we still have more than half of the book to go.
Speaking of which, Franco and Isabella have almost reached the point where they are openly dating, the war is over, and seven years have passed and we aren’t even halfway through the book. Most of my expectations for where the story could go have been met. This means we’re in for a very interesting, very rough, or very interesting AND rough time as we continue to read.
Antonio’s inclusion into the story breathed a bit of additional levity into the story as Isabella’s particular charm has been subsumed a bit by the romance plot. It was nice to see someone willing to make a few jokes and brighten up the atmosphere as Italy is still suffering in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Time showed up in a weird way in this story again in a couple of places. For one thing, Susanna keeps insisting on sending for a vaccine for her ill sun. I can’t tell if the author or Susanna doesn’t know that vaccines have to be administered before the illness to have any effect. It was a bit confusing. Also, the narrative was very specific that Franco’s train ride from Puglia to Lucca lasted only a single day. I did some quick googling and found that modern trains make that journey in 14-20 hours. It seems unlikely to me that the trains of 100 years ago, which probably had to make more than the four stops the modern train will make along that route, would take so little time. I do have to admit I’m not as up on my train technology as I would need to be to say that definitively, though. Can anyone corroborate this suspicion for me?
Another recurring problem rears it’s head in this chapter with Giovanni, too. Once again his actions and attitude seem to depend more on the needs of the plot than anything you’d reasonably expect from a completely sane person. He’s described one moment as blaming Isabella for DeAngelo’s illness and only a few pages later he’s restraining himself from hitting Susanna as he blames her for the boy’s illness while defending Isabella. He’s kind and happy when Franco lays out plans for how to grow the farm but spiteful and angry when Franco hires help. Isabella claims he’s kinder than he was before Franco arrived but based on what we’ve seen that’s only true about half of the time. It’s a bit frustrating to see the character’s personality and attitude shift so wildly from scene to scene.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Franco’s trip into Lucca with Bartolo. At first, I thought it could be a good moment of bonding between them and maybe Franco would learn to let some of his stuff go. Instead, it was just a lecture from him to Bartolo about not giving in to guilt. He also commanded the boy to abandon his grief and smile to help comfort his mother. I’m sure Angelina needed whatever comforting she could get but I’m never a fan of telling other people they have to stop feeling their own feelings like that. Bartolo has as much right to his grief as Angelina does.
Finally, one last thing that irked me. Isabella’s reactions to the way Susanna behaves in these chapters is exactly what I would expect of her given their relative positions and how intelligent Isabella is. This makes my complaints from earlier in the book where she didn’t act like that all the more pointed, now. I still can’t get over how weird it was for her to antagonize Susanna in those earlier chapters and how weird it was for Susanna to just let it go. The feeling of weirdness only gets stronger every time I see Isabella avoid antagonizing Susanna or Susanna do yet another petty thing without caring how it might affect anyone else.
Next week let’s read chapters 18 through 22. Baseball season is rapidly approaching and I’d like to finish this book before or during the early part of spring training if at all possible so that means we need to pick up the pace some. I honestly have no idea where this book is going to go next and that makes me think some more tragedies are going to befall our heroes to give them something to do. I’m very worried for Franco and Isabella.