We’re really getting into the meat of this story, now. Remember that we read chapters six through nine this week. Hopefully, we’ll see some more character progression this week. It should be really interesting to see what the war does to the Carollo brothers if they both survive. And I have to assume that Isabella will do something other than cook and diss The Church before all is said and done.
(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.
Bernardini Carollo - A sturdy man, runs works on a vineyard/farm in Puglia, Italy. Husband and father to two sons. Strict Catholic.
Maria Carollo - Wife to Bernardini. May be more perceptive than her husband.
Benny Carollo - Bernardini’s oldest son. 23 years old (as of 1917). Strong, loyal, dependable. Similar to his father. Currently at war in the Isonzo Valley.
Franco Carollo - Bernardini’s youngest son. 21 years old (as of 1917). Questions everything. Similar to his mother. Slow, deliberate, contemplative. Currently at war in the Isonzo Valley.
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.
Giovanni and Susanna Martellino - Landowners who aren’t as wealthy as they wish they were. Both can be very petty, cruel, and deceptive but the narrative goes out of its way to paint them as something less than villainous caricatures.
Finally! Isabella does something besides grow and cook! Admittedly, it’s taking a plant she’s grown to gift to someone else, but still! And we also finally get a look a Lucca’s majestic walls. So it’s nice to have the “Roll credits!” moment out of the way. As she helps the Venero family we begin to see just how big of a strain her life has been for her. She now faces and discusses it cheerfully but it’s clear it was very rough for a long time.
Isabella cooks for the Veneros - because of course she does - but just as she begins to serve the Lady Martellino enters their small house and begins to cause trouble for her vassals and the young chef that dared to reject her offer of employment last time they met. After some arguing and haggling, Susanna Martellino agrees to allow Isabella to work there helping out the Veneros as long as she also cooks for Susanna and isn’t paid for any of it. How generous.
After some time passes Isabella plans to return to the convent but Susanna convinces her to return to help deliver her baby. We learn a bit more about Susanna and Giovanni’s past.
Back to the Carollo boys at the front. Franco has a crisis of faith and enters in a religious debate with an army chaplain, Father Mario. Franco is sent to beg leadership for reinforcements but gets no reply before the battle breaks out. He races down to join the fighting only to discover the Father he had been arguing with and his brother were both dead.
Isabella finds herself requested - and allowed to go to - the Martellino estate more and more often to help care for the new baby. Finally, Giovanni and Susanna decide to go on a vacation to Rome together and Isabella is called upon once again to babysit while they’re away. The Martellinos attend a Nationalist political rally while in Rome and Susanna is quite taken with their rhetoric - that the peasant class must be controlled all costs - while Giovanni is dismayed at how these wealthy landowners use, abuse, and ignore the people of the lower classes.
They return to discover Isabella having a food fight and wrestling with their child. Susanna kicks Isabella out.
I’m going to focus on the things I didn’t much care for this week and then we’ll talk about some of the things I thought were pretty good. First of all, the time thing is still disjointed to the point of irritation. During the course of these chapters, we saw the phrases “a day in November”, “winter turns to spring turns to summer”, “August 4”, and “A cold afternoon in October”. I don’t require either precision or a lack of it, but the combination of the two in the way it’s being done is driving me batty. To the point that every time a time period is mentioned it pulls me out of the narrative.
I also thought the initial confrontation in this section between Isabella and Susanna was out of character for both of them. Not that they wouldn’t have a confrontation, but that it wouldn’t work like that. Isabella is too smart and has spent too long working around people she disagrees with to have been that insulting to someone with direct control over whether she can accomplish the goals she has set for herself. But Susanna is also entirely too petty to allow a challenge like that to go entirely unanswered. Every other scene we see Susanna in she shows herself to be the kind of person who would cut off her nose to spite her face. But she allows this direct challenge from a poor, orphan commoner and does nothing about it.
Just before Susanna asks Isabella to act as her midwife we get all of her backstory in a quick exposition dump apropos of nothing. It doesn’t even help to inform her next actions. Give credit to Physioc that his prose flows so smoothly and quickly that I almost didn’t even notice this while I was reading. Unfortunately, the next bit features so terrible confusion. The last Isabella says on the subject is that she won’t do it but then suddenly we’re reading a description of the birth of Susanna’s son as delivered by Isabella one of Susanna’s servants. There’s no flow or logic here. It almost seems like it was supposed to be one of those comedic swipe cuts you see in TV and movies where a character adamantly refuses to do something only for the swipe cut to occur and suddenly they’re doing it. But there wasn’t even the literary equivalent of a swipe cut. It just abruptly happens. Also, such a comedic device doesn’t really fit with the tone of the story being told.
Also, despite how extremely detailed Physioc’s writing is, almost to the point of fault at times, there’s absolutely no indication that Isabella has any interest, knowledge, or skill in midwifery. Similarly, there’s no foreshadowing that she would find herself so interested in caring for the child she helps deliver. There’s nothing that says she doesn’t have all of those things, but generally, it would be better to give some hint that it might be something to expect so it feels like a resolution when it happens instead of just some random occurrence. Actually, that goes for Susanna getting pregnant in the first place, too.
For an example of how this can work look no further than the moment in our first week where Chef Paolo asks her out. It’s just a sentence or two and adds a bit of color to the scene. But then it sets up what happens later when she first decides to feed the Veneros. Sure, she could have just given them food from the convent meal but having her go get ingredients from Paolo and offering to go out with him as incentive adds even more color. And it works because of how we’d seen them interact before. In this way, tiny moments can build upon each and make a narrative something more rather than just a dry accounting of events.
All that said, it was great to see Isabella open up some more. We see in Physioc’s writing how difficult her childhood must have been even though she can be very pleasant and matter-of-fact about it now. It was good, also, to see the level of compassion she has goes far beyond an impromptu meal and to a willingness to travel and do whatever she can to assist this poor family. We also see her discover a maternal instinct, even if it might have been done a bit more smoothly than it ended up.
The debate between Franco and Father Mario was also really fascinating to me. It, along with the rest of the conversations between Franco and Benny, told us a lot about the state of mind of both men. It was cool to see how the war has changed both of them; Benny is more frustrated than ever and Franco is angrier than ever even as he’s found a willingness to fight for his countrymen. The only weird thing about the conversation with Mario is that Mario cautions Franco against taking the Bible literally. Maybe things were different back in the early twentieth century but I don’t imagine I could find a high percentage of pastors, bishops, priests, or clerics who would make that argument now. It did feel a little out of place, but Franco’s argument suited him to a tee and was thought-provoking, character-defining, and all-around interesting.
And, as I think many of us expected, Benny died fighting in the war. Interestingly his last words were a plea to his younger brother to flee. Benny before the war was all about honor and duty. Now, with his dying breath, he pleads with his brother to abandon all of that and save himself. His additional request that Franco forgive should keep us in suspense for a while. Forgive...who? Forgive Benny for not surviving? Forgive Father Mario for the argument? The Italian government for the horrible way they were fighting this war? Or perhaps God for the whole mess. Regardless of what Benny meant, I imagine we’ll see Franco debating this within himself for a long while. Perhaps he’ll even flee all the way to Lucca where a nun who has her own non-traditional views of God might help him find peace? Only time will tell.
This narrative is shaping up nicely and I’m honestly a bit surprised to find that I’m enjoying it to a degree and looking forward to where we go next. I hope you’re also enjoying it. It’s going to be a bit longer of a read next time but let’s read chapters 10-13. Chapter 13 will be the longest chapter we’ve read by far; longer than almost three of any of the chapters we’ve read so far. Here’s hoping the prose flows as well as it has to this point and there’s plenty more character action to keep us invested!