“Why do you pick so many books set in Olden Days for me?” my son asked recently. Umm… “Because now is such a short time compared to all the time that has been. And because we like to listen to fantasy, and until recently, most fantasy was historical fantasy.”
The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani. Narrated by Annabella Sciorra and Adriana Trigiani.
I’ve enjoyed many Adriana Trigiani books in the past – Rococo is the only one I’ve reviewed here, but I’ve read 5 or 6 others that I can think of off the top of my head. Naturally, I went for this one, though I waited for the hold list here at the library calmed down a little.
This one is an epic based on the lives of her grandparents that Trigiani has been researching for 20 years. We meet Enza and Ciro as they are both teenagers in Alpine Italy. Enza is the responsible oldest daughter of a large brood; Ciro is the youngest of two, left with his brother at a convent after their father dies. It’s love at first sight when Enza and Ciro first meet as Ciro is digging Enza’s baby sister’s grave, but before they can meet again, Ciro is to emigrate to America. Enza and her father travel to America somewhat later, knowing nothing of Ciro’s fate. They are just hoping to earn enough money in the U.S. to build their family a house before returning home. In America, Ciro is apprenticed to a shoemaker in Little Italy, while Enza labors in a sweatshop in New Jersey, before finding a better job in the Metropolitan Opera’s costume shop, sewing for Caruso. After years of working, romances with other people, and Ciro fighting in World War I, they finally marry, but decide to stay in America rather than trying to return to Italy. As there are plenty of shoemakers in New York City, they move to the Iron Range in Minnesota, where Ciro and his fellow former apprentice become the only shoemakers to the miners.
Maybe if I’d remembered more of the reviews I read, I wouldn’t have been disappointed – but I was expecting Enza and Ciro to be married for most of a book titled “The Shoemaker’s Wife.” Instead, they got married about disc 9 of 12. Somehow, I was strongly reminded of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, and wished that this, too, divided the independent life, the courting, starting married life and having children into separate books. While I enjoyed the earlier parts, I felt like the last part, the part that was what I was expecting the book to be about, was rushed through, with years skipped over without transition. There were a few instances – Ciro’s first romance, and every upholstered item being covered in chenille – where I wondered about the historical accuracy, though it’s obvious that a lot of research went into it. Trigiani writes here, too, with a more emotional style than in her other books. I’m sure it’s deliberate, but sometimes when I could hear the violins in the background, it was a bit much for me. Writing along the lines of “If only Enza had known that she would never see her mother again, she would have hugged her longer” as part of a whole paragraph along those lines. It was Trigiani’s decision also, apparently, to switch to narrating the book partway through. I understood this decision a little more when I listened to her talk about it in the interview at the end, but it was initially very jarring to hear the characters talking in completely different voices, with New York accents while being described in the text as having strong Italian accents. That being said, while I personally preferred Sciorra’s narration, Trigiani read more expressively than many authors I’ve heard.
Despite its flaws, I sincerely cared about Ciro and Enza and their friends. Along with the Trigiani elements that I’d expect – the Italian family in America, the food, and the transformational trip back to Italy – there’s a lot of Caruso love, and a strong feeling both for the hardships that drove Italians to immigrate and the experience they had when here. If you’re in the mood to curl up with a historical novel set mostly only a hundred years ago, this is a fine choice.