Too many books serve up bite-sized little chapters — and simplistic characters — meant to be absorbed quickly while we are on the run. Sadly, like the old joke about Chinese food, I read lots of novels that leave me famished 15 minutes after I put them down.
Adriana Trigiani has gone against this tide with a close-to-500-page saga “The Shoemaker’s Wife” (Harper) which spans decades — and continents — in a story that takes us back to the turn of the last century and then brings us up through World War II.
It’s a book that you sink into — happily — because it tells a great story with characters we care about. The sheer size of it is part of the novel’s unusual power. You will probably find yourself devoting many continuous hours to the adventures of star-crossed lovers Ciro Lazzari and Enza Ravanelli who come from the same part of the Italian Alps but seem doomed to be kept separate after they arrive in New York City.
Underneath Trigiani’s quite specific tale of two young Italians who left for America to make a better life is the story of all of our ancestors who had the guts to turn their backs on countries, cultures and families a century ago. Reading “The Shoemaker’s Wife” I felt like I was getting back in touch with my own family members who took this huge, brave leap — in my case, from Ireland and Germany.
Ciro becomes apprentice to a shoemaker in Little Italy, Enza goes to work in a New Jersey factory as a seamstress. They make friends, improve their lot in life, but always feel the pull of the place they came from — they know, however, that they will probably never have the time and the money to make that long trip home.
The book is packed with fantastic historical material, including a wonderful long section in which Enza becomes a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera and eventually gets to know the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.
Like E.L Doctorow in “Ragtime,” Trigiani brings fabled celebrities into her fictional narrative as major characters, bolstering the almost overpowering feeling of realism we get from this fantastic book.
Do yourself a favor. Unplug your devices, carve out a few days’ time, and savor every page of “The Shoemaker’s Wife.”