Things just keep getting worse for Italy in general even as we only mostly witness the drama surrounding three families at a small vineyard in Tuscany. Still, the political consequences come home for our friends in the story in a few different ways. This week we read chapters 31 through 35. Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy.
(If you missed last week’s discussion, you can find it here.)
Isabella Carollo (née Roselli) - A young adult woman who used to live at the Blessings Convent in Lucca. She is married to Franco and they have a child, Liliana. Extremely talented farmer/gardener and cook. Has a strong relationship with DeAngelo 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 married to Isabella.
The Venero family - Angelina and her children. They work at the Martellino farm. Angelina and Antonio have begun a romance.
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. Pregnant with Alfredo’s child.
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. Married to Angelina Venero and step father to her chidren.
Alfredo Obizzi - Fascist politician who convinced Susanna to have an affair then rid himself of her when she became pregnant.
Franco and Isabella are going about their lives when they learn that Giacomo Matteotti has been kidnapped. Susanna cries when she hears the news. Obizzi gloats that no one will find the body; it seems Matteotti wasn’t just kidnapped, he was killed.
Later, Antonio delivers wine to a shop where Bartolo Venero now works. They discuss the fact that the government has outlawed all opposition and many people who used to oppose Mussolini, even obscure ones, are now being watched by special police for an opportunity to be killed. Obizzi decides to use these new decrees to his advantage to try to kill two birds with one stone; he will use the Sicilian mafia to plant evidence that the Martellinos and Carollos are anti-fascists and then have them killed to rid him of the people he hates the most and curry favor with Mussolini.
The vineyard is prospering as Franco doesn’t just grow great grapes, he also combines them in ways previously unimagined to create some of the best wine in Tuscany. The Martellinos throw another Christmas party and Angelina’s daughter, Rosa, has a gentleman caller. Silvio, who you may remember from earlier in the story as the boy in the Blackshirt being bullied. Silvio asks Antonio and Angelina for permission to marry Rosa. They tell him they’ll have to discuss it but to enjoy the party for now.
Later, Antonio and Franco are delivering wine to a local restaurant. Little do they know that Obizzi and his Sicilian mafia hitmen are there to rough them up. Fortunately for our heroes, Antonio was on this trip instead of the usual Giovanni and they’re Sicilian hitmen. They are acquaintances of Antonio and the assault ends almost as quickly as it began with Obizzi forced to flee once more without either proof of their wrongdoing or even simple revenge.
Alfredo tries again; this time sending the police after Bartolo at the wine store he works at with false accusations of being anti-fascist. Bartolo was out making a delivery when it happened and so escaped. But when he returns to the farm to collect some belongings to take with him into hiding they are surprised by more police and blackshirts arriving. Thinking quickly, they hide Bartolo in a wine barrel which they trick the police into delivering to the Blessings Convent for them.
Obizzi’s efforts have not been entirely in vain, however, he receives notice that the party recognizes his contributions. Still, he seems dissatisfied with the political gain and focuses only on his desire to hurt the people who once embarrassed him. Meanwhile, Antonio, Giovanni, and Franco successfully help Bartolo escape the Italian fascists and he rides a boat to freedom in France.
Franco and Giovanni have a large quantity of wine stolen as they ride a train to deliver it to a new customer. Giovanni begins fretting because he took out a loan on the vineyard in order to pay for the private school for his children; without the money from that sale he could lose everything. Franco tells Giovanni to withhold his salary until it can be afforded again. Meanwhile, Isabella learns that one of her lifelong friends has had his restaurant taken from him by Alfredo Obizzi. She vows to make the Tuscan podesta (mayor or magistrate) eat her crostini which she insists will make him listen to reason and revert his reverted decision to award the lease of the building to Obizzi instead of her friend. Her gambit fails, however, as Obizzi was waiting behind a closed door to interrupt the meeting at the most opportune moment. She manages to confirm for herself that he stole their wine and throws a crostino (the singular of crostini), covered with tomato and cheese, into his face but earns no other benefit from her efforts.
As she tells the rest of the people at the vineyard about what transpired she eventually vows to continue showing God’s love to the people around her and help however she can. She believes this will be enough to stop the evil of men like Obizzi.
The brevity of chapter 31 is striking. Bravo to Steve Physioc for using the structure of his book to help set the tone here. Matteotti is dead and we see very simple, very short reactions to it and it makes it stand out and affect the reader in a way that would not have been nearly as effective if he had tried to be more flowery or stretch out the chapter. Really good stuff.
That said, what the heck was with Susanna crying? At first, I thought it was because she was finally realizing how evil the fascists were but the rest of the reading makes it clear she doesn’t believe that. My only other interpretation is that they were tears of joy for how it would empower Mussolini but that doesn’t feel right, either. If you understood what was going on there, please fill me in!
I have to admit when I first started reading about how amazing the wines were that Franco was creating I was a bit annoyed. Wouldn’t it be OK, if just once, a main character was just average at something and didn’t have to be the absolute most bestest ever? But then as I continued reading I saw that Physioc didn’t just throw that in there to throw it in. He made it cause conflict for Franco and everyone else at the Martellino farm. So while I’d still like to see a character in a story like this - one where their talents aren’t at the heart of their position in the narrative - be mediocre at stuff. At least Physioc made it do something for the story and something bad for the protagonists, even.
One thing I can’t stop thinking about is how much Franco, Isabella, and Antonio - the characters who seem to most exemplify what the author feels is a good attitude about life - all eschew political discourse and conflict. Being happy in all circumstances certainly is admirable, but it seems to me that simply ignoring the political dilemmas of your time at all times and all costs is incredibly dangerous. I get that, at least in Isabella’s and Antonio’s cases it’s because they trust God to make everything work out OK. But I can’t help but think about what’s coming for these people in this story and wonder if more people had taken a stand instead of avoiding conflict it might have been averted. But then I also wonder if maybe they’re right and there’s just sometimes nothing we can do and no reason to bring conflict to the dinner table if you can’t fix it.
One thing that keeps jerking me out of the story is that sometimes I feel Physioc is overly detailed in his descriptions of things. For example, when Susanna’s sister arrives at the vineyard she doesn’t do it in “a white sports car” she does it in “a pearl-white 1925 Alfa Romeo RL Super Sport Castagna”. There’s something to be said for specificity, but I tend to lean towards telling the story through the eyes of the characters involved. Susanna doesn’t seem like much of a gearhead to me so the former description seems like how she would see it. I’m curious if anyone feels differently than me, however.
The final thing I spent too much time thinking about was Franco volunteering to go without salary after the wine is stolen. Can you imagine if an employee made that sort of offer to their employer in 2020? I know Franco is really invested in that vineyard but while this decision is painted as extremely selfless on his part it would break about a dozen US labor laws and generally seems like a terrible idea. On the one hand, it keeps Giovanni a chance to recover. On the other hand, Giovanni’s circumstances wouldn’t have been so dire if he hadn’t sent his kids to a private school he couldn’t afford and didn’t think would be good for them. Franco is sacrificing in the hopes of keeping this job but in return, he gets absolutely no guarantee that Giovanni won’t fire him without paying him another cent if Susanna gets another bug up her bum about how, as a peasant, Franco must be super socialist. There’s a lot to admire about Franco, and because this is a story I’m sure things will work out for him, but I beg any of you reading this to ignore the example he’s setting in this regard.
Next week is it! Finish reading the book this week and I look forward to discussing the entire title with you then before we start digging into some spring training content. For however many of you have joined me on this journey I hope it’s been as enjoyable for you as it has for me. If you’re really nice and Max doesn’t catch on to how little traffic I’m able to drive with this sort of passion project we’ll do it again with the sequel next off-season!