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Hok Talk - The Walls of Lucca Part 6: A pause for characters

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Susanna is going to ruin Franco and Isabella’s lives if it’s the last thing she does!

Tuscany vineyard pixabay.com

This week sees a lot of interesting character development for several people including some characters we haven’t necessarily spent much time with. It was a really interesting read and I think sets the stage for much of the conflict that will take up the rest of the book. But you don’t have to take my word for it; hopefully, you read it yourself but if not you can read my summary of most of the actions of chapters 18 through 22.

(If you missed last week’s discussion, you can find it here.)

Dramatis Personae

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. His parents live on and work at a farm in Puglia. 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 and courting Isabella.

The Venero family - Angelina and her children. They work at the Martellino farm. Angelina has come out of her shell since Antonio began working there.

Susanna Martellino - Landowner’s wife in her mid-20s. Wife of Giovanni, mother to DeAngelo. Bitter, petty, and vindictive, her venomous words harm everyone she interacts with.

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. Now works on the olives and as a salesman for the Martellinos.

Alfredo Obizzi - Fascist politician who fills Susanna’s head with dire warnings about the alleged socialist nature of her employees while having an affair with her.

Summary

The eighteenth chapter starts with Franco and Antonio trying to sell some of the olive oil from their vineyard. Antonio’s style of salesmanship worries Franco at first - he gives out samples to everyone at the restaurant instead of just the owner - but his exuberance and the popularity of the product wins over the owner who provides Franco with a political update while Antonio dances around the restaurant.

Meanwhile, Susanna tells Giovanni she wants their workers gone and he promises to talk to them in the morning. However, the next morning finds Franco, Antonio, the Veneros, Isabella, and a couple of nuns from the monastery harvesting all the olives they’ll use in Susanna’s Best Olive Oil. Giovanni confronts the two men about their alleged attendance in a socialist meeting but Antonio defuses the entire situation by explaining that the meeting was occurring while they were selling Giovanni’s olive oil to the proprietor.

After the olive picking, there’s little to do around the farm and Franco invites his parents up to show off all his hard work. Giovanni decides to throw a Christmas party and invites all his workers to attend. Franco may have been excited to show off his work on the farm to his parents, but that’s nothing compared to his excitement at having them meet Isabella - even if they are just friends. Isabella, of course, charms them as she has everyone not named Susanna Martellino.

Isabella takes it into her head to try and help Susanna, who is obviously troubled. But when Isabella approaches, Susanna quickly departs and deposits herself into the arms of Alfredo the politician. Isabella retreats without being spotted herself.

The farm’s stock continues to rise. Giovanni begins to rely more and more on Antonio’s help with selling their product to great success. During one trip they have a political discussion where Antonio more or less tells Giovanni that the fascists are trouble. This leads Giovanni to an argument with Susanna when they return as she continues to push for a fascist government.

Giovanni sends Franco to deliver wine into the Trieste market - Trieste was a seaport city that Italy annexed as part of the treaties signed after the war. Franco finds the person to whom he was to deliver his wine but also discovers a great deal of unrest - he’s awakened by gunfire on his first morning and finds his rental truck vandalized - because the Italian fascists seem to have decided that genocide against the remaining Slavs in the region is the best course of action.

Franco tries to return home but runs into a blockade and then fighting breaks out and he moves to save a random couple who are being whipped with a chain by a fascist terrorist. He is wounded but takes them safely to a farm well outside the city. Badly injured he refuses treatment because his only thought is to return home to Isabella. His wounds begin to fester and become infected during his train ride home but some other kind refugees and strangers return him to the Martellino farm. Fortunately, Isabella is there and immediately begins tending his wounds.

Susanna, characteristically, takes the opportunity to once again demand Giovanni fire Franco for...having a promissory note of payment from a man who may have died in the fighting in Trieste. Giovanni finally stands up to her completely and she threatens to leave him. Giovanni’s guilt over having sent Franco into such danger along with his new backbone after confronting Susanna leads him to lend Isabella his car to take Franco to some mountain springs where he can heal as well as to promise to take Franco’s place working the vineyard until Franco can return.

Isabella and Franco spend several days and nights in the mountains with her tending to him. He realizes how much he loves her and contemplates asking her hand in marriage but chickens out at the last moment. Isabella also explains more about her spiritual beliefs and Franco decides to take them seriously. He attempts to practice what she has preached and begins to feel as if he has finally let the weight and guilt of the death of his brother and the army chaplain go.

Thoughts

These few chapters were interesting for their extreme focus on character over events which sets them apart from most of the book before now. It was really interesting to see and, as a person who thinks characters are more important than plot, I was quite glad about it.

Another thing I was very glad for was that when Giovanni went to fire Franco and Antonio for “attending a socialist meeting” Physioc avoided the “simple misunderstanding leads to massive conflict” trope. Antonio remembers exactly what happened, explains it, and Giovanni listens. This is how such a situation would go 90% of the time in real life but it often seems in stories this sort of thing is used to cheap drama and I always find it infuriating. I’m so happy we avoided it.

I’ve complained more than once about Giovanni’s character seeming to sway with the needs of the story but after reading these chapters I think I might have been mistaken. I think Giovanni is a good person. I also think that he does almost everything Susanna tells him to and allows her prejudices to get him pre-angry with people and their choices. We haven’t always been shown Susanna manipulating him in previous chapters but it happens every time he acts unreasonably in these chapters so I’m willing to assume that’s probably what happened behind the scenes before. This realization makes Giovanni a much more compelling character; especially as he finally throws off her influence toward the end of chapter 22. Will his newfound backbone stick with him or will she use more irrational fears to break him to her will again?

Early in this book, I thought Franco would be the character speaking with the author’s voice, but it seems that that was only true then. Now it seems Isabella speaks for him. It’s quite fascinating to see Franco learn from her; he doesn’t like Susanna or truly think his actions can help but his choices during the Christmas party to put her in a position of honor could only have been borne of Isabella’s influence on his actions. Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to have helped his position but it was a kind thing to do and I respect him all the more for having done it.

Speaking of Isabella speaking for the author her beliefs seem less and less related to any form of organized Christianity I’m familiar with as we continue to learn about them through the course of the book. I know it’s silly and pointless but I can’t help but wonder how Dayton Moore feels about one of his employees publishing a novel in which a protagonist denies so much of Christian dogma.

I often find myself in complete agreement with Fred Savage’s character from The Princess Bride; I’m either disgusted or barely tolerant of “kissing stuff” in my books. Still, I found myself slightly irritated - in a good way - at the two opportunities Franco and Isabella had to kiss earlier in the book. But now I’m irritated in a bad way that when they finally had their first kiss it’s told to us only in a flashback and they’ve progressed to the point where they kiss on the regular. Seems like after all the build-up it would have been nice to have it pay off in real-time.

Finally, as much as I despise the archetypes under which Susanna’s character falls I have to give Physioc credit for giving us her point of view, occasionally. It’s astonishing to see how little she considers Franco, Antonio, and the other peasants as real people. She’s concerned with them only as stereotypes of what she fears about their class. It’s also heartbreaking to watch her constantly get in her own way and realize she’s doing it. Too many times this character archetype is completely oblivious to how horrible they are, but by giving us insight into her thought process we are shown that Susanna is painfully aware of how terrible she is. Still, she only gets worse. As the book continues will she find a redemptive moment or is she destined to become the ultimate villain? Only time can tell.

Next week let’s read chapters 23 through 26. At the current pace, we should be able to finish up in four to five weeks. Just in time for spring training to really get going.