Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“In America, anything was possible. This was what Josephine’s husband told her before he left their village to catch the ship in Naples. She didn’t know him, this husband of hers. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents long ago, before Josephine had breasts, or menstruated for the first time.”
In turn-of-the-century Italy, fourteen-year-old Josephine is married to Vincenzo Rimaldi, an older man chosen for her by her parents. Shortly after the wedding, Vincenzo departs for America alone, and nine years later, he finally sends for his wife to join him in Rhode Island. Thus begins an Italian-American family saga that spans a century, and four generations of the Rimaldi clan. Josephine gives birth to seven children, including a final child that is secretly given up for adoption. Josephine’s daughters grow up, marry, and have daughters of their own, never suspecting their mother’s secret loss, as each in turn suffers her own disappointments with life and love.
A strong sexual current runs through the series of interconnected short stories that make up this novel, as the Rimaldi women stagger under the overwhelming burden of Catholic guilt. First Josephine, who has child after child by a husband with whom she knows neither love, nor pleasure, has a short-lived affair in “The Summer of Ice.” In “War Stories,” her daughter, Elisabetta, sets out to seduce the parish priest, even as her younger sister Chiara decides to become a nun. In “Husbands,” Josephine’s granddaughter, Francie, a war widow, has a series of affairs with her neighbours’ spouses. Struggling with the traditional values that tell them their sexual desires are not only wrong, but sinful, and unimportant compared to the demands of family life, the Rimaldi women frequently find that happiness is elusive. Ann Hood focuses on the women of the family, but also pauses to explore Carmine, Josephine’s son, and a World War I veteran, and Davy, Josephine’s great-grandson, who values his Italian heritage even as his mother seeks to Americanize her family. Of Italian-American descent herself, Hood draws on her own family’s history of arriving in Rhode Island and building a new life, each generation becoming more at home in America, but still carrying the weight of tradition.
Speaking at ALA Annual 2014 in Las Vegas, Hood revealed that she wrote this novel in bits in pieces over the years, fitting the stories in between her other projects, and only later realizing she had a novel on her hands. The patchwork shows in the sporadic nature of the vignettes, and the need to frequently refer to the Rimaldi family tree at the front of the book. Josephine’s search for her lost daughter, and the daughter’s quest for the mother who gave her up loosely book-end the novel, but in between we travel far and wide from this organizing conceit.
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