Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Italian Wife.
From World War I to Vietnam, An Italian Wife follows the generations of a family begun with the marriage of Josephine and Vincenzo Rimaldi in an Italian village, the bride only fifteen and unaware of what the future holds when she joins her husband in America. Young Josephine’s life holds promise, even though she will not see Vincenzo for another nine years in a country that does not understand the language of her birth, the only language she will ever use. Josephine bears six children, naively in thrall to the parish priest who gazes upon her with leering eyes but as unprepared to raise her children with hopes and realistic ambitions as a child, clinging to the old ways, fearful of everything around her. Her one foray into wildness, a moment lost to foolish passion, begins in ignorance and ends in sorrow, an illegitimate daughter handed off to the nuns in secrecy.
Hood’s novel follows Josephine and her children—shell-shocked Carmine; Ciara, a nun; Elisabetta, the beauty, an unhappy, unfulfilled wife who squanders her intelligence; Concetta; Guilia; the slow-witted Isabella; and the sister no one knows about, Valentina—documenting their stories through the years of war. Stereotypes that might serve as cultural landmarks instead define a dysfunctional family that leans too heavily on confusions, eccentricities and mistakes, the great bounty of familial love drowned out in the minutiae of particular personalities. The result is a patchwork of characters, including granddaughters, who seem often without moral compass, close ties to one another frayed by excessive demands and ineffectual life skills. The predominately female cast seethes with dissatisfaction, husbands dead or otherwise marginalized except for a chapter on Josephine’s war-damaged only son, Carmine, and his bizarre sexual observations.
In fact, the novel often turns to sexuality as a means of defining characters, whether the immature daydreams of a married woman about her boss, Josephine’s flare of passion for a stranger (the iceman, who fathers her illegitimate daughter), a widowed daughter who seeks solace for loneliness in sleeping with other women’s husbands, or a granddaughter’s exploration with recreational drugs and sexual experimentation with boys. The scenes are particularly graphic and tasteless, sometimes lonely masturbatory endeavors, adding to an aura of isolation and minimal pleasure in pleasureless lives.
The majority of characters are just unlikable, devoid of joy and sad. The few uplifting moments are found in Josephine’s early years (before America) and in the person of Aida Caruso, whom we first meet in Rhode Island at fourteen and later when she runs away to San Francisco. I so enjoyed Hood’s prior novel, The Obituary Writer, and I looked forward to An Italian Wife only to be dismayed by the clumsy plot and disappointing characters. The prose that was so luminous in The Obituary Writer is now buried beneath the emotional detritus in this tale (“The Importance of Similies” indeed), Hood’s insights into the ambiguities of human nature given over to a cynical, grating inclination to highlight flaws and hopelessness instead of the moments of beauty that infuse even the most mundane life. This is a novel where everyone is looking at the ground, hiding behind pain, alcohol, drugs or sex, forgetting to raise their eyes…and maybe their hearts.