The Shoemaker’s Wife: A Novel

  • Adriana Trigiani
  • Harper
  • 496 pp.
  • April 11, 2012

From Italy to America two immigrants can’t escape their connection in this Cinderella-style story of hardship, love and success in the early 20th century.

Reviewed by Beth Gutcheon

When a novel begins with a distraught widow leaving her small sons at a convent, promising to return but instead disappearing without explanation for decades, you could reasonably assume there are grim times ahead for young Ciro Lazzari and his older brother Eduardo. But Adriana Trigiani is not in the business of creating worlds filled with misery and people you don’t want to know. She is a warm-hearted writer with an optimistic and generous view of fortune and mankind, and this novel, based in part on stories told by Trigiani’s grandmother about how she came to America and made her way, is from the start a love story that involves many kinds of love. The nuns of San Nicola are not the same as a mother, but they provide a safe, trustworthy home for the boys. Ciro is not a saint (though Eduardo comes close), but he works hard and is watched over and helped along by a small host of flesh-and-blood angels.

Meanwhile, on another part of the mountain (we are in northern Italy, near Bergamo, just before the turn of the 20th century), a girl named Enza is growing up in the bosom of a happy family, if one of straitened means, and the novel makes no secret of the fact that Enza and Ciro’s  lives are entwined from the start. It is Enza’s father who drives the cart that carries Signora Lazzari away from her sons to wherever she is going. It is strapping young Ciro, now mostly grown, who is sent up the mountain to dig a grave for Enza’s beloved little sister Stella, who suddenly sickened and died, as people did in the time before antibiotics. On the worst day of her young life, 15-year-old Enza notices Ciro, and he her. A spark is struck, though it will be many years and many missed chances before Trigiani allows them to bring it to full flame.

Clearly, it’s not that terrible things don’t happen in these lives; they do, continually. Money is very hard to come by. Enza’s parents lose their house and can’t recover; Enza, the oldest child, takes ship with her father for America, where they will work and send money home so family members can build a house of their own. Ciro’s life is changed when he happens to surprise the young parish priest canoodling with a girl Ciro himself has a crush on. The priest has connections and wants the unfortunate witness out of the way; soon Ciro, too, is on his way to America. What makes these people admirable and vivid is the gallant way they meet malign circumstance; what makes the novel compelling is the detail Trigiani fills in around them, the feel of the ship during Enza’s near-fatal sea-sickness in the steerage berths below the waterline, the sights and sounds of the streets of Little Italy in New York where Ciro is apprenticed to a shoemaker, and the artfully-drawn personalities of the people they come to live among.

So there they both are, grown up and in America. Do they fly to each other when they meet again? They do not. Both Ciro and Enza are lucky in friendship and in work, however. While they are missing cues and failing to connect with each other they are finding their paths in America. How Enza and her best friend, Laura, progress from drudgery to the New York high life is the kind of delicious Cinderella immigrant story that thrills because it has actually happened so often in this country, if not usually so fast. They get work sewing costumes at the Metropolitan Opera, and because of Enza’s virtuosity with both a needle and a pasta pan, are taken up by the great Enrico Caruso. They are making decent money and share a room in the best of the boarding houses for working women in Greenwich Village. They attract prosperous beaux; they go to marvelous parties with the opera folk, wearing beautiful costumes they’ve made themselves. And Ciro? He has finished his apprenticeship, been lied to about Enza’s whereabouts by her Dickensian former landlady, stopped looking for her, and enlisted to go fight in the Great War. This is the kind of book that makes you wish the author were a friend of yours, because at this point, you want to call her in the middle of the night and beg her to let these nice young people get on with it.

There are times when these characters seem too good to be true. There is also the odd mistake:  at one of those fancy parties Laura sits in a “slipper chair” and her beau sits on its arm, though a slipper chair by definition has no arms. Someone wears a “tuxedo without tails,” though a “tuxedo” is specifically a dinner jacket cut like a suit jacket, an informal American replacement for the tailcoat. Will you care? I doubt it. This is a novel with heart and breadth, wonderfully imagined, about love of family, of friends, and of country. Trigiani has given it powerful narrative sweep and drive, with plenty of romantic top-spin.

Beth Gutcheon, author of Gossip, is the critically acclaimed author of eight previous novels: The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage, and Goodbye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy Award nominee “The Children of Theater Street.”

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