A mother’s unhappiness is partly redeemed by her daughter’s resolve in an unusual, downbeat debut set in 20th-century Italy.
A headstrong young woman with an appetite for art drives Novelli’s first novel, which sometimes feels at odds with the dates of its settings. Willa Carver celebrates her 20th birthday in Erhart, Ohio, in 1934 yet seems to belong to an earlier, Wharton-esque era. Passionately committed to learning how to paint in Europe, she dismisses several marriage proposals and her parents’ wishes, choosing instead to attend art classes in Florence. But a fateful encounter on an Italian train with a wounded, pro-Mussolini army officer named Gabriele Marcheschi changes all that. Despite warnings of haste and impropriety, Willa marries Gabriele and commits herself to a farmer’s life in Orvieto. The town—provincial, traditional, gossipy—never accepts her, and neither do her in-laws. Life is hard, there’s no time to paint, and war follows, during which one of her children dies. And then she falls in love with another man: grief-stricken Michel Losine, whose wife and child were murdered by the Nazis and who lives in a twilight world of shady business dealings. Novelli’s eye for detail and commitment to her Italian setting enhance her multigenerational saga, but the plot is disjointed and lacks psychological insight, notably into Willa’s choices. Most striking is the shortage of happiness all around, which spreads beyond Willa to her children. Daughter Fina narrates, and her own story completes the book in 1968—although the chapters on roving gypsies and unchaperoned women suggest an earlier era. Fina, who shares her mother’s pattern of hasty choices, finds the determination to push for a happier outcome, yet the tone of the postscript is ambiguous.
A lugubrious story of exiles and misfits lifted by the occasional luminous detail.