Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Italian Wife.
Hood’s rather limp story follows Josephine Rimaldi, whose life in a small village outside of Naples is turned upside-down when she learns she will be married to Vincenzo Rimaldi. Josephine tries to make sense out of the world she’s been born into, along with her own limited capacity to love and to be loved. Sometimes Josephine acts without thought, though she’s probably the most likable character in Hood’s strange, perplexing novel of sexual repression.
Merging her storytelling talent with historical details, Hood tunnels us through the years into 1918, where
immigrant Josephine stands waiting, ready for her life to unfold in a “summer of ice” that will soon become the summer of the Great War. It’s been nine years since Josephine has seen her husband, who left for America and soon calls for her to join him in a town just outside of Boston.
Josephine finds herself ensconced in an insular Italian community where Holy Father Leone, with his head “of slick wavy hair, and his large, drooping handlebar mustache” offers Josephine the measure of attention she so craves. She spends her days baking bread, making pasta, and tending to the garden while her husband tenaciously channels his interests and ambitions into producing children. Unable to quite comprehend what she’s gotten herself into, Josephine is quickly consumed by her babies—Elisabetta, Chiara, Giulia, Concetta, son Carmine, and later, a baby girl called Valentina.
As Josephine grows older, her passionless life stretches endlessly before her while her husband “eats, slurps and chomps.” With no money, very little English, and a husband who doesn’t really love her, it’s not surprising that Josephine turns to slick, twisted Father Leone. In her naivety and innocence, Josephine believes that Father Leone will assuage her sins through his flesh.
While the cover of this book makes it seem as if Josephine is the core of the tale, her children actually take center stage. Josephine may have come to terms with her own past, not only the erosion of her marriage as she sees it but also the whereabouts of her lost daughter. Both these events crush her conflicting feelings towards America. Sex is central to the novel (Hood writes many graphic scenes), but more relevant is the author’s enduring theme as seen though the eyes of Josephine: the fate of mothers who have lost their children and spend the rest of their lives trying to find them.
While I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of all of the characters, the one standout is in 1972, where Penelope (Josephine’s granddaughter) has a hard time coming to terms with her mother who constantly obsesses over finding the woman who birthed her. Penelope’s life tilts and changes, keeping her constantly off balance. Her father is just one of the many men in this novel who marry women just long enough to get them pregnant and disappear. The other standout is Josephine’s son, Carmine, who sees a place of opportunity in the glittering lights of Coney Island, It’s the summer of 1918 and he has just gotten engaged to Anna Zitto, a “girl who says no when she means yes.” For Carmine, life in Coney Island proves to be far more lucrative than working at the local mill.
Although Hood utilizes her words well and genuinely produces emotion in her characters’ lives, this is perhaps the least absorbing of all of her novels. Wrought with the dark threats of sleazy sex, jealousy, bitterness, and vanity, the tale illustrates people forced to come to terms with their future, however disappointing it may be. In the end I found this book so entrenched in sorrow, anger, and self-pity that its insights left me feeling disinterested in everyone.