The Shoemaker’s Wife

“Did you like Canada when you first arrived?”
“Never,” she replied in her broken English. “I like nothing when I come here. The people, the food, the cold…
veramente niente.”
“Never?”
“Never,” she repeated quietly, looking away. Her face sagged, wrinkles delicately folding into one another. The corners of her mouth curved downwards, two parallel roads. “I never like it, and I never will. I missed my life, my friends. My house. My Italy.”
I nodded, slowly turning an orange around in my hands, caressing its scaly skin for a soft spot to peel into. I said nothing for a moment, saddened by this thought, that someone could live for over 40 years in a country eternally unhappy, disconnected.
“But, I have no choice back then,” she sighed. “Ok
basta, Cristina. No more question.”
Irritated, my grandmother reached out to stab her thumb through the orange for me, peeling off a small chunk. She shuffled away in the embellished cork-heeled sandals that she insisted on wearing inside, leaving me alone at the kitchen table.

***

These days, I can’t write reviews for every book I read (and I read a lot!). Life, busy-ness, business, writing, and work take up so much of my time. But there are some books that truly touch me on a different level, and I feel compelled in my heart to write about them. I have to write about them. The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani is one of those books.

If you were wondering about the above piece, it is a conversation I had with my grandmother, my nonna Franca, not long before starting The Shoemaker’s Wife. Perhaps that’s why it hit me so hard. In the early 1960s, with very little in their pockets, my father and his siblings, and my mother’s parents, made the week-long boat journey from Italy to Halifax to try to build a better life for their families. They had not known each other, but later met in Toronto after fatefully moving onto the same street. Although I’ve heard the stories so many times, I can’t imagine the incredible sense of isolation and fear, excitement and elation, felt by immigrants coming to North America, to a country they had only heard about distantly, and seen in their dreams – but this book puts it all into perspective.

The Shoemaker’s Wife was the most enchanting book I’ve read this year. This is a sweeping historical epic, a kind of double bildungsroman, following the lives of two characters from teenage years in the Italian Alps, to adulthood in New York City and, later, Minnesota. It is a book that, with credit to its stunning, elegant writing, at once made me feel nostalgic, though I’ve never lived in the early 1900s, and engaged, as the history and culture were so similar to that of my own. By the end of the novel, I was in tears, my heart aching, deeply touched by the characters and their lives. They became a part of me. Trigiani beautifully describes intricate details of Italian and Italian-American culture, all of their glories and triumphs, the tolerable and the celebrated – and the food! Oh, THE FOOD. Cooking is a fine art, a tradition, a vehicle of expression, a way that families were brought together and kept alive, and it is deliciously portrayed as such throughout the entire book. Every manner of Italian is perfectly sketched out, from the awful Signora Buffa to gentle Sister Teresa, the rambunctious, hopelessly romantic young Ciro, and practical Enza, whose meaning in life and love lies with family.

Trigiani is a bestselling author, as well as a prolific playwright and screenwriter, and I could immediately tell in her writing – specifically, in the dialogue and detailed setting. Dramatic devices cropped up, from juxtaposition to scene contrast (ie. one scene taking place in two separate rooms), making the story that much more interesting  In my mind, I was watching the play. It is a long book, but don’t let that deter you. When the curtains closed, I wanted an encore.

Unfortunately, I notice a few reviews calling this book “a great beach read” or “a great summer read”, but it is so much more than that. It is so much more important than that. I need to give it the justice it deserves. You will fall in love with the story, the characters, the era, the many cultures, and New York City, of course (if you haven’t already had the pleasure of doing so). A beautiful love story, and a touching tribute to the immigrants that built America, The Shoemaker’s Wife is a must read.

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