Back of the book blurb: Against a backdrop of Immigration, Prohibition, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the new millennium, the Verbicaro family make their way from Southern Italy to San Francisco to the Yucatan, finding ways to reinvent themselves as each of them brushes up against some aspect of the divine, or the profane.
The family matriarch, Rosari, is a little girl whose family flees Italy because her prodigality is exploited by illiterate kidnappers. When she and her father reach San Francisco, she meets the man she’ll marry, a handsome, fiercely strong peasant named Giuseppe Verbicaro. Rosari and Giuseppe’s oldest son, Narciso, a handsome and dim-witted dandy, barely evades disaster by his simple-minded innocence and luck. His passionate brother Ludovico, a talented third-baseman in the old San Francisco minor leagues, falls prey to the illicit dreams of a wise guy from the Gambino family. Their youngest brother, Joe, a brilliant child and shrewd businessman, is ashamed of his ethnicity and, in particular, his father, in part because Giuseppe, wandering North Beach, believes that God directs him to marry a teenage, pregnant Mexican prostitute named Maria.
Further senility, faith, or vermouth convinces the old man that Maria s child, Jesus, is the product of an immaculate conception. The event is both a family disgrace and a bizarre blessing. The child’s life and death have a profound effect on Giuseppe’s progeny, particularly Joe’s children: Penelope, who flees the country following involvement in deadly anti-Vietnam War activities, and her brothers Paulie and Angelo, who are inspired by the young Jesus to embark upon a quest of several thousand miles to heal old wounds and recover the family’s lost, but most-prized spiritual treasures.
She is Too Fond of Books’ Review: John Addiego’s debut novel is powerful not only for what he writes, but also for the structure of the novel itself, which spans five generations over about a century. The first chapter is ”A Rose in the New World” in which Lazaro, Eleonora, and their daughter Rosari are forced to flee Italy for America after young Rosari unwittingly assists in a kidnapping attempt by translating a ransom note for the kidnappers. In this and each subsequent chapter, the plot revolves around a turning point in the life of one member of the family; here we have Rosari, who will bear six children and live nearly one hundred years as the matriarch of her family.
After I read about three chapters in The Islands of Divine Music, and this “one chapter, one central character, one conflict” pattern became evident, my mind switched into the mode of reading linked stories. I had read another review that indicated the book read this way, so I was expecting it; it would have been an easy rhythm to get into in any case. Addiego indicates in the acknowledgements that some of the stories were previously published in literary journals; I do wonder if it would be more effective to market the book as a “novel in stories.”
Addiego sets the family stories within the larger stories of the day, yet the history of America and the world are for the most part simply the background within which the Verbicaro family fight their demons and are helped by angels. Shortly after Rosari is married, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hits, and her husband turns from work shining the shoes of the wealthy to work carting away the rubble of the fallen symbols of this wealth:
… Giuseppe made money by way of destruction. He attacked houses and toppled them like trees to make room for new construction. He chopped down buildings with a hammer, destroyed banks and offices. He removed the citadels of the rich from the face of the earth, returned the broken towers, wrought of brick and wood, to dust.
And as he worked the had six children, and America went to war with Italy, and wine was illegal to buy. Giuseppe became the father of Narciso, Francesca, Ludovico, Grazia, Mary, and Joe, and he destroyed buildings by day and made wine in his backyard with a cast-iron press by night …
Some of you may know of my admiration of the cover art on books published by Unbridled Books, an independent press. If you can’t see it in the above image, click to enlarge the cover of Islands of Divine Music. It shows several people hanging on to dandelion seeds, their directions changed by the intervention of a breath; it’s a beautiful metaphor for the course of our lives.
I connected with this book because it reminded me of the stories I have collected about my own family – bits of lore, passed down through the generations, some with gaps, some with such great detail that you feel as if you were watching the story as it played out. These stories taken individually are pleasant to read and could each stand alone; taken together in this format, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In the end, The Islands of Divine Music is more than just the story of the Verbicaro family, it also becomes a story of redemption. I’ll look forward to reading more of Addiego’s beautiful writing.
Many thanks to Caitlin at Unbridled Books for providing my review copy. Click here to order The Islands of Divine Music from Amazon.com.
Are there any “novels in stories” or “linked stories” that you’d recommend?