An Italian Wife
AN ITALIAN WIFE is a beautifully written, heartfelt journey through an Italian woman’s family of daughters, granddaughters and even great-granddaughters as they decide what it means to be Italian-American through wars and grand cultural shifts.
Beginning in 1889, the novel introduces us to Josephine Rimaldi, who is only 14 when she is married to Vincenzo, a short, squat man with a pushed-in face. The following week he travels to America to save money for their family, and she finds that her life changes very little. However, in nine years (too soon, if anyone cares to ask Josephine), he sends for her, and she sets off for a life of childbearing, cooking Italian dishes, and running Vincenzo’s household. Make no mistake that there is no love lost between Josephine and her husband. Still, she is an obedient wife, and they create six children before Josephine is even 30.
Growing weary of her provincial life, Josephine becomes infatuated with the ice man who delivers her ice every Friday. The two begin an affair that, although brief, is full of more passion than Josephine has ever encountered, and she soon notices a familiar swelling in her stomach. Unable to confess her sins, Josephine gives the girl up for adoption and tells her husband that the baby did not survive birth. Still, even as she watches her own brood grow and develop, she never stops thinking about her beautiful daughter born of love rather than obedience.
"AN ITALIAN WIFE is truly a masterpiece, with the historical details providing just enough context to explain the characters, but not so much as to make it a work of strict historical fiction."
As the novel continues, the reader is offered a glimpse of Josephine through her children: Carmine, Concetta, Giulia, Elisabetta, Chiara and Isabella. Each child has a different idea of what it means to be Italian in America, with Carmine serving in World War I, Elisabetta demanding to be called “Betsy” and join the cheerleading team, and young Chiara devoting herself to God at the young age of 11. As the children grow and mature, each develops a very distinct personality, a feat that author Ann Hood has accomplished flawlessly. No two girls read alike, and none feel so exaggerated as to become a caricature or archetype. Later, when we are introduced to Josephine’s grandchildren, this talent continues even as the cast expands dramatically. These younger girls are, believe it or not, even more interesting than their mothers, as we watch America’s suburbs start to grow and Mussolini’s reign begin in mother Italy through their observant eyes.
Although we still catch glances of Josephine, each chapter offers a full portrait of one daughter or granddaughter as she struggles with being too Americanized for her family, but too Italian for America. For some, like the beautiful and curvaceous Francesca, this imbalance never ceases to be an issue, even when she saves up enough money to move to a beautiful ranch in the American part of town. Widowed by the war, Francesca is never quite accepted by her neighbors as they are threatened by her exotic looks and proud demeanor.
We meet many members of Josephine’s ever-expanding family, including her illegitimate daughter, now named Martha and living in England following the death of her husband. Their journeys, all tied to Josephine in one way or another --- be it writing letters to Mussolini for the zany old Italian woman, or eating her perfectly prepared meals --- offer a full picture not only of life as an Italian-American, but as a woman in an imperfect world. Though the challenges each woman faces are unique to her situation, any reader will find something to identify with in each character. AN ITALIAN WIFE is truly a masterpiece, with the historical details providing just enough context to explain the characters, but not so much as to make it a work of strict historical fiction.
Most impressive, however, is Hood’s ability to create such distinct voices that are still clearly part of the same family tree. As I was reading, I often felt as though I was looking through the family photo album of a dear friend. Certain scenes and features of each chapter were familiar, but the introduction of each character was still exciting every time. As the first-generation daughter of an immigrant, I was most intrigued by the youngest girls who fought to hide their status as Italian-Americans. Their insecurities were written so well that I often felt uncomfortable myself, wishing I could help the girls accept their great heritage and beauty.
I have heard wonderful things about Ann Hood’s writing, and, after reading AN ITALIAN WIFE, I cannot believe I waited so long to pick up one of her novels. This definitely will not be my last.
Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 12, 2014