Lyrical first outing about star-crossed love in southern Italy in the 1940s.
In May 1943, Vito Leone is just a few months shy of his 18th birthday, when he’ll be drafted into the army like all the other young men whose absence torments the villagers of Santa Cecilia. They don’t question the war’s purpose (the author pulls no punches about Italians’ support for Mussolini, and even Hitler), but people in the impoverished Abruzzo region have few illusions about their subordinate and generally unlucky place in the scheme of things. The parents of beautiful Maddalena Picinelli dream of a better life for their daughter and don’t appreciate Vito’s attentions, though Maddalena, 16, is intrigued by his passion. A romance unfolds amid a beautiful rendering of provincial life, with the unchanging natural rhythms and structured society that seem comforting to Maddalena but stultifying to her fiery sister Carolina. When Italy surrenders in the fall of 1943, most villagers, including the Picinellis, flee the vengefully retreating Germans, but Vito is trapped in Santa Cecilia with his ailing mother. He survives and even restores the Picinellis’ ruined house before they return at war’s end, but Maddalena’s parents intend her for a wealthier husband. She loves Vito, sort of, but “had the power to control none of it” and felt that “she played such a small part in her own life.” This is a passivity that makes Maddalena increasingly irritating, especially since it’s never been terribly clear why she’s so special except that other people keep declaring that she is. That may be the point, as the closing chapters here amply demonstrate that Maddalena lacks strength to resist other people’s plans and doesn’t really deserve Vito. The beautiful final paragraph, aching with tenderness and regret, would be even more moving if she’d been a more engaging character to begin with.
Not perfect, but Castellani’s faultless reproduction of a distant time and place, his elegant, eloquent prose, and his warm sympathy mark him as a talent to watch.