Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Maggie Rainey-Smith on her holiday reading - real book v Kindle
by Marlena de Blasi
Published by Allen and Unwin
Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith
The great thing about writing reviews for this blog is that I am pushed to read more widely. Like many readers, I have my preferred genres and I admit with that comes a bit of prejudice about genres that I choose not to read. Couple this with my very recent foray into using a Kindle and the scene is set for my reading of this (actual), hard-back hold-in-one-hand size, attractive book by Marlena de Blasi.
Without the need to review, hand on heart, I might not have read this book as I may well have made assumptions about ‘genre’, the whole ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ sort of thing, and decided that it wasn’t for me. I was holding this book in one hand, while extolling the virtues of travelling with a Kindle. I think this book is an example of a book that rewards reading the real thing, holding it, turning the pages and admiring the romantic scrolls adorning chapter headings and transitions within chapters – not to mention the reward of recipes at the end.
Marlena de Blasi is a best-selling author with flocks of fans and she doesn’t need for me to approve or disapprove her themes. She is a chef, journalist, a food and wine consultant and a restaurant critic... and from the photograph of her, also beautiful. The book is part memoir and part (perhaps primarily) biography – as the title suggests, the story of Antonia and her daughters. This is set up perfectly in the very first paragraph “To protect the sacred right to privacy of this family and their way of life, I have changed names and placed the narrative at a geographic distance from the actual location in Tuscany where these events in fact unfolded.” And this, “At many junctures I was tempted to commit my own sins of omission or, at the least, to sprinkle a touch of rosewater here and there. Several passages I was moved to delete from my early notes and yet – and not without angst – I retrieved them.” Of course I was hooked!
So, we have de Blasi's own story, a woman with a ‘fairy-tale’ life looking for time and space to finish a book (married to the rather gorgeous by the sound of it, Fernando). She takes up the offer of a simple stone cottage in a remote province of Tuscany to focus on her writing and this requires finding space too in her relationship. Once there, she encounters Antonia and her daughters. De Blasi and Antonia (not her real name) forge a friendship that begins precariously as Antonia despises Americans and other foreigners who come to Tuscany for the good life. To her credit de Blasi’s self-knowledge and her ability to look at both sides of the coin helped to alleviate my concerns that I was about to read a cliché on American woman finds bliss in Tuscany sort of thing. There is an over-lay of philosophical authorial voice which sometimes irritated me but in the end, this is not a novel and I can see it is a tricky thing to balance how it is the author, comes to be telling the story of Antonia. They are kindred spirits it seems, in spite of their age difference, and thus, eventually, Antonia entrusts her story to the author.
The backdrop is sensual and there is plentiful sumptuous prose around food – I found myself salivating. At times I felt the descriptions of beauty and clothing and labels like Vintage Prada, Doc Martens, Hermes, etc, were overplayed to the detriment of character development - and yet too, I can see how they worked in this context, the almost cliché of the beautiful Italian dynasty. Perhaps an important juxtaposition for the final revelations – I’m not sure if this is intended or not. At one point when the author is visiting Antonia’s home there are three pages of the physical attributions of the house and the clothing that the characters are wearing. But, the characters are certainly worthwhile, and there are other stories besides Antonia’s and all of them very interesting.
Antonia’s story is both beautiful and brutal and although we wait quite some time for her story to fully unravel, it is worth the waiting. It seems the author went to the stone cottage to write one book and met Antonia and her family and wrote this book. It is a very interesting insight into the Tuscan spirit, the Second World War, the relationship between the Italians and the Germans and the impact of the German ‘occupation’ and ongoing consequences for this extended family.
That the book ends with recipes is a bonus, because indeed, I was salivating for Carabaccia, a soup of cinnamon-scented onions and peas purported to usurp my favourite French Onion soup.
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.