After the gloppy novel-cum-cookbook La Cucina (2000), British author Prior continues to mine hackneyed peasant lore in a fairy tale about an unlovely albino servant girl with a peculiar, alluring odor—but also with vanity that eventually dooms her.
Ramona Drottoveo is the uppity chambermaid at the sumptuous estate of “la Casa” in the Volturno valley whom the other servants love to hate, while the men follow her licking at her heels. Her scent can make any of them—from the pig-keeper to the estate’s master Signor himself—“forget the whole of his past life and seek to reinvent himself.” The only one who won’t grovel for her favors is the modest beekeeper, whom she honors by allowing him to court and marry her—only to cheat on him with his handsome assistant hours after the wedding. After the beekeeper goes mad and gets stung to death, his spirit proceeds to curse, first, the estate, and then the two lovers, who flee to Naples. Ramona, vain and tone-deaf, fancies herself an opera singer, and although she and her poor new beekeeper husband, Rinaldo Buffi, have no money, she covets new clothes and good food. Alas, ambushes await the country bumpkins, as do plenty of sinister stock characters with florid names, from the selfless hunchback to the lecherous opera director to the superstitious shrine keeper (a multi-page list of characters introduces the book). And as may be expected from a clowning parody of Italian provincialism, there are steaming dishes of food, pentola of costine, and so on. Prior’s simple prose undercuts her apparent aim of seducing the reader by means of thickly spread nostalgia, nor may there ever have been a more repulsive lead character than Ramona, or one more deserving of her fate.
With violins playing and Chianti flowing, a goofy commedia dell’arte.