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  • Written by Francesca Marciano
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  • Written by Francesca Marciano
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Written by Francesca MarcianoAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Francesca Marciano

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42519-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A crumbling farmhouse in Puglia, Casa Rossa was bought by Alina Strada’s grandfather at a time when no one else wanted it. Now busy preparing it for sale, Alina endeavors to recover the memories it still harbors—in particular of three women whose passions indelibly shaped her family’s dark past. There’s grandmother Renee, whose love of novelty won over everything else. Alina’s mother, Alba, whose marriage to a screenwriter inspired both great art and unbearable sadness. Finally Isabella, Alina’s sister, whose fervent politics drove her to ever-escalating betrayals. Moving from Jazz Age Paris to 1950s Rome to modern-day New York, but returning always to the uncompromising beauty of Italy’s south, Casa Rossa is a spellbinding story of how loves and losses, secrets and lies, resonate across the generations.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

When we were small, my sister Isabella and I used to wonder whether Alba had murdered our father.

Murdered him, and then made up the suicide story.

We'd be in the kitchen, hunting for food, two skinny girls, ten and twelve. Murdered. We'd let that possibility hang in the air, to see if anything crashed or shattered, but nothing ever moved. The house remained perfectly still.

"Who knows, anyway," we'd say, to finish it off. We didn't really want to know. If she had done it, eventually they would come and lock her up.

It was bad enough, what had happened already. Dad vanishing, like a card in a trick.

We'd hear the keys in the door. She'd come in smiling, wearing her green dress and sandals, her arms full of groceries.

There she was: Alba. Our mother. The Murderer.

"Want a prosciutto sandwich, darlings?"

When we were that small, things shifted proportions all the time: the really dangerous stuff shrunk, curled up in a ball so that we could juggle it, study it closely, let it drop from our hands the minute it began to bother us.

It was a silent agreement between my sister and me. To move on, to survive.

To eat that sandwich.



CHAPTER ONE

Careful now. Watch what you do.

You keep staring at the living room, you don't think you can fol- low this task. It feels like sacrilege to alter its order, like rummaging a temple.

How long has this dark red armchair been sitting across from the threadbare sofa, right next to the painted lampshade? How many years has the faded rug sat on these stone tiles? Ren?e's portrait hung on the wall? The opaline vase stood on the mantelpiece?

My grandfather bought this house in the late twenties. It was a crumbling farmhouse then, nobody wanted it. My mother grew up here. My sister and I did, too.

Casa Rossa has been my family house for over seventy years.

I know its smell like I know the smell of cut grass. Its map is imprinted in me, I can walk it blindfolded.

Why did I think these objects would stay like this forever and that I could always come back, find the chair and the sofa and the rug and the painting in their place? That way I assumed I could always reenact all the different moments that shaped our story. Like the day when Ren?e was sitting for my grandfather on the wicker chair and, as he was painting another one of her portraits, she told him about Muriel. The summer day Oliviero came for lunch and sat outside on the patio under the trellis and fell in love with my mother. The times my sister lay awake at night, wrapped in her hatred, fearing every noise. Or the night I took Daniel Moore in here for the first time. I opened the door and showed him this room. This rug, this faded sofa, that yellowing lampshade. The room smelled of firewood. "This is it," I said.

I hoped it would stay like this forever, so that, by coming back and finding everything still arranged exactly as I had left it, I would believe I had secured my history in a safe place. Inside a shrine, where nothing would get lost. Just as prayers are never lost in a church. One can always go back and light another candle.

As I walk across the ground floor of Casa Rossa, as I move from the large kitchen into the living room, then through the big wooden door into my grandfather's studio, I look around, I count my steps, I mark my territory as if it's the last time I will ever do this. And, guess what. It is.

I talk out loud to myself-like I always do when I'm scared. Careful now, watch what you do. Everything, from now on, will be final and surprisingly quick.

The movers will arrive and wait for me to give them a sign. Then they will heft the table, then the sofa, they will roll up the rug and take down the painting. They will wrap the furniture in blankets and tie it with rope. They will blindfold and choke the familiar shapes and will pile them up one on top of the other in the truck. An armrest will show from under the blanket. The stain on its faded fabric will look pathetic. The scratches on the table legs, the pale circle a cup had once left on its top: all these familiar marks will look spooky now, like scars. One didn't notice them so much before. But it will be impossible to look at them now without shame. You will have to admit that these things have turned into what they have always been but which you always refused to see: a pile of sad, old junk.

Once every single piece of furniture and every single box are loaded onto the truck, this house, stripped bare in a single morning, will go back to being mute. A white canvas, where someone else will write their story.

That's how fast our memories disintegrate.

I've been procrastinating about calling the movers, of course. Who wouldn't? It's like phoning in your own death sentence and prodding the executioner.

Instead I've been wandering around the rooms in a daze, touching surfaces, sizing things up. Every time I open a drawer or look in the back of an armoire, some new discovery stuns me. I keep turning between my fingers what I have just found, as if expecting it to talk to me. An old dusty ribbon (a hat? gift wrapping?), a newspaper clipping from the fifties, the obituary page (whose death are we looking at here?), a single light-blue silk shoe, custom-made in Paris (Ren?e's?), a tiny photograph in black-and-white, of a group of young people huddled together on a beach in thirties-style bathing suits (which one is my grandfather?), a single page from a letter (no date, no signature, written in French).

It's like trying to trace the history of an Egyptian mummy from her ring, a few glass beads, bits of broken pottery, a faded inscription. Yes, she was a merchant's wife-no, a pharaoh's sister, or maybe a high priestess. History demands a plot with a proper beginning and a proper end.

This is not a story about what we know, nor about what we have.

This story is about what gets lost on the way.

My mother, Alba, rings me twice a day from her house in Rome. She wants to know how I'm proceeding with the move.

"Oh," I say gingerly, "I'm not quite ready yet. I still have to go through all the drawers upstairs in the bedrooms. There are all these papers, photographs, you have no idea how-"

"Just chuck everything in the boxes," she interrupts. "You'll never get out alive if you start looking at everything. Those people said they want to move in next week."

"It's all right. They have the house for life now. They can wait another day or two. By the way, I found your wedding dress."

"Oh my God."

"It doesn't even look like a wedding dress. I only recognized it from of the photos."

"You found those as well?" she asks.

"Yes. Everything was kind of stuffed inside a box on top of the armoire in your room. There were hats, printed wedding invitations, an envelope full of pictures. Papa  looks like this smart kid with glasses. Like a math genius or something. Why didn't you wear a long white dress?"

"Oh, I don't know. It was a country wedding. . . . I kept it simple," she sighs, impatient with me already. "I remember it was a pretty dress."

"Knee-length, full skirt. Tiny poppies embroidered here and there. Fifties-style, you know. I'm wearing it right now."

"You are?"

"It barely fits me, but it makes this whole process a bit more fun. You know, wearing something so nice."

"Alina," she sighs . . . . "are you okay doing this on your own? Do you want me to come down? I could get on the train tomorrow if you need me."

She asks this question twice a day, her voice full of dread that I'll say yes.

"No, I'm fine. You would only get in the way."

"Are you sure? I'll come if-"

"No, really. I'm actually enjoying it. It's kind of . . . therapeutic."

I don't hear anything coming from her end, so I add:

"It's like, you don't even begin to realize someone you love is really dead until you see their body go underground. It's part of the process."

"Jesus, you are morbid," she says, but I can feel her relief: she can stay in Rome.

I always knew she wouldn't have anything to do with sorting out old, forgotten boxes. Alba has never been big on remembering.

Puglia is the heel of Italy, the thinnest strip of land between two seas. Lorenzo, my grandfather, said it was exactly this-the refraction of the sun hitting the water on both sides-that made the light of Puglia so rich and warm. He had chosen to buy a house there because of it. He needed to paint in that light, he said.

Way before it was called Casa Rossa, the house had been a crumbling farmhouse-a masseria-built in the eighteen-hundreds, surrounded by a wall in the midst of an olive grove among the open fields in the countryside south of Lecce.


From the Hardcover edition.
Francesca Marciano|Author Q&A

About Francesca Marciano

Francesca Marciano - Casa Rossa

Photo © © Laura Sciacovelli

Francesca Marciano is the author of the novels Rules of the Wild, Casa Rossa, and The End of Manners. She lives in Rome.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Francesca Marciano, author of CASA ROSSA

Q: Your first novel, RULES OF THE WILD, was about Africa. You evoke places so vividly–what made you want to write about Italy this time?

A: After writing about Kenya -- a place where I spent several years of my adult life -- I felt the urge to go a little deeper, to plunge into some early memories, some closer feelings. Although Casa Rossa is a work of fiction, so much of the complex tapestry of my background as an Italian is woven into it.

There are, I think, certain images that follow us all of our lives; they are as powerful as if they’re engraved into our DNA, and are responsible for shaping our lives.

In this novel I wanted, among other things, to conjure up these images of mine, and try to make them come to life on the page. They come from the landscape of Southern Italy–cacti; relentless cicada song among the olive trees; crumbling farmhouses and their thick walls, the sweet smell of ripe figs: these are the sounds, sights, and smells of the place I fell in love with as a child.

For me Southern Italy is a place with incredible power, and as I set out to write Casa Rossa, I thought it would serve well as background for the characters of a novel. I wanted the people who inhabit this novel to mirror the quality of the landscape: its beauty and power, its starkness--a feral quality. It’s a land beset by poverty; to live here, one would have to have a will to survive everything.

Q: And why did you choose to have your main character–your narrator–spend much of her time in New York City?

A:
Of the two sisters, Alina escapes; she moves to New York City and, in the heady atmosphere of the art world of the 80s, tries to camouflage herself in a place where people’s pasts don’t count and there’s no sense of belonging. Nobody has time for memories; everyone is too busy making plans for the future.

In the neat grid of the streets of Manhattan, Alina can finally put the story of her sister, her mother and her grandmother in perspective. She falls in love with a man who is, to her, a quintessential American: Daniel Moore is man for whom there’s only yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. To him it’s unconceivable that Alina could be in such deep denial over her sister’s role in a terrorist movement. When Daniel follows Alina back to Casa Rossa, the demarcation line between right and wrong, true or false, will no longer be as clear for him. Even this pragmatic American will come to see that the truth sometimes has a price attached that nobody (in a family) wants to pay. It is a lesson that all the Strada family must learn as well.

Q: What is it like, writing about your own country in English, which is not your first language?


A: I chose to write much of the book while living in the US -- which, along with not writing it in Italian, helped me keep a necessary narrative distance, and I hope, some objectivity. English doesn’t have the same emotional implications for me that Italian has. Had I started writing it in Italian, I might have censored myself more. At the moment I’m working on the translation into Italian (the book will be published in Italy in January 2003) and it’s been a difficult process. I almost need to re-write it: there are things about Italy that Italians don’t need for me to explicate, and things I may need to do more of, for the Italian reader.

Q: Do you consider this a political novel? Could the events have taken place anywhere besides Italy?

A:
This is a novel about the particular history of Italy, and the historical facts are of course more than relevant. On the other hand, since the theme of the novel is memory and the various facets of one truth, one could say that the novel carries a universal theme. The reason I wanted to write this novel about a family in Italy -- taking the reader from WWII, through the glamorous days of Rome in the 50s and the booming sixties, all the way through the dark years of terrorism -- is that I always saw a parallel in the way history unfolds and passes on its version to the next generation, and the way the memory and the history of a family is passed on to their children and grandchildren. Both release the story of what “really” happened only after a careful editing, and often only after either lightening the dark areas of the past, or exaggerating the grey areas, and making them black.

So much of our history -- as families and as citizens -- is blurred by denial. Italy had a dubious role during the Mussolini years and more so during the war. Italians have been very successful at wiping out their Fascist past. Shortly after the war, we proceeded to forget (actively forget, that is) that we ever raised our hands up to Il Duce. In that same way, the Strada family tries to obliterate its past, wipes out facts, in order to survive and move on.

As we all know, denial can be a very effective weapon for survival. It can make people stronger (like Alba in the novel). Perhaps the reason Italians seem so vivid and full of life is that we’re champions at forgetting.

Denial can also destroy one’s psyche, the burden becomes too heavy (like what happens to Isabella -- she is, in the end, destroyed by the truth of what she has done, politically, and to her family). Truth often rises to the surface unexpectedly, like air bubbles. Or like the way a painting seeps through a coat of paint that covers it; in the novel, the fresco of the adulteress/betrayer, Renee -- who commits a political and sexual crime as it were -- shows her eyes to the family in each generation.

Q: What do you imagine “Italy” evokes for Americans? What did it mean for your American Daniel Moore who falls in love with Italy?

A: Italy probably still evokes, as it did for E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, and Hemingway, a notion of otherness. There’s a sense of freedom, of exhilaration, whenever an American comes to Italy and realizes the place, as lovely as it is, is still so “unstructured.” Even Alina feels this when she leaves New York and comes back to Rome. She says that when Daniel, “The Romantic American,” comes to Italy, he seems to display “a longing for some form of emotional disruption.” He desires contamination, risk, and to have his world turned upside down. The image of Italy, of its rawness, evokes in him a longed-for vulnerability that makes him feel more alive.

Q: Your portrait of Isabella, and the portrait of the inner workings of a terrorist group, is striking, particularly right now. Was this a choice you made that was occasioned by the events of last September?

A: Actually, no. I started writing the novel and had the story plotted out in early 1999. In the seventies the student movement in Italy was very involved in the social struggle along with the working class. I would say that every school and university campus in that decade was extremely active, and that every single person I know from that generation, knew someone who had been, if not imprisoned and charged, at least investigated or arrested. That doesn’t mean that every student involved in politics was a terrorist, of course. But many started out as fervent militants and slowly ended up joining more and more extreme groups, until they joined groups who justified the use of arms, the stakes being so high.

To me, what was relevant was that once again, with terrorism, we Italians faced a civil war at home, and once again we solved it by warping the concept of truth. By offering reductions on the murders’ sentences in exchange for information, many of those terrorists came out of jail and walked around free. Once again, moving on seemed more important than processing what happened and why, and a whole generation -- many militants of the extreme left who inspired terrorist acts -- put their past behind them without having to deal with it. I didn’t want to write this part of history from a political angle; I wanted to write it from a personal one. What happens when the terrorist you read about in the newspaper comes from your own home? How does your perception of that family member change; what are you prepared to ask; and most of all: what are you prepared to know? Do you look at this person, now accused of murder, of terrorism, as a stranger, or do you keep seeing your sister, the little girl you played with as a child?

And most of all: do you understand better than the rest of the world what -- which pain, which fear -- made this person so hard, so full of rage, inasmuch as he, or in the case of Casa Rossa, she, has resorted to kill for a cause? In other words, your pain as a child, the need to divert the resentment, to find an Enemy, is an unknown fact or a mystery for everyone, but it’s traceable in the eyes of a sister or a mother.
Of course, after September 11 that part of the novel -- for it is only one part of Casa Rossa -- took on a different meaning. Even the word “terrorist” which was slightly abstract, and merely remembered from my experience of Italy in the 70s, resonated painfully. I think, to a certain extent, the story of these two sisters can be read as an attempt to understand how ideology is a consequence and not a cause. We choose the shape to give our pain when we are children. Some of us, like Isabella, turn it into a bullet.

Q: What’s next for Francesca Marciano?

A: After I finish the Italian version of this novel, I’ll spend the summer teaching English in East Africa, and during those months will probably face the writing process as mostly a series of grammatical rules. Next year I will probably write a few film scripts that I’ve put off for some time -- while I was writing these novels! There are also a number of short stories I want to work on. As far as another book, well, in the very back of my head a very blurry idea is forming but hasn’t taken any shape yet. It may take years. Maybe not. But I’ll keep thinking.

Praise

Praise

“An engaging, sweeping and compulsively readable novel.” —The Washington Post Book World

“An enthralling tour de force …The gritty details of modern Italian life make Casa Rossa impossible to put down.” —USA Today

“[Marciano] amps up the glamour and mystery in her sophisticated novel about Italian sisters who clash over family, politics and men. Think La Dolce Vita turned topical tale.” —Glamour

“Elegant, eloquent prose . . . Casa Rossa is notable for its rueful understanding of the volatile mix of emotions that binds us to those we love.” —Los Angeles Times

“[A]ffecting, beautifully told. . . [R]ich and resonant. . .Marciano is a natural-born storyteller.”—The New York Times

“Beautifully told . . . rich and resonant. . . . Marciano is a natural-born storyteller.” The New York Times Book Review

“A family epic [that] revolves around three generations of extraordinary women… Fans of Marciano’s first novel will once again embrace her sensual descriptions of exotic lands.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Marciano brings Southern Italy as boldly to life as she did Kenya in Rules of the Wild. . . . imperturbably weav[ing] intricate complications together into a glamorous, romantic whole.” —Publishers Weekly

“Lyrical. . . . Romantic. . . . The story of a family whose secrets collide with history.” —Desert News

“Marciano. . .casts a sharp eye on the society that surrounds the family of the Casa Rossa. Her Italy is full of lies. . .But the search for truth takes courage, and the lesson learned in her novel is that the violence of the anni di piombo achieved nothing.” —The Economist

“Lyrical. . . . spiced with those special Italian flavors: beauty, melodrama, and–of course–murder. . . . Thank heaven for life’s little pleasures.” —Daily Candy NYC

“Marciano effectively intermingles family secrets, Italian history, and the loves and lives of her characters. A good read.” —Library Journal

“Tells the mesmerizing story of three generations of a twentieth century Italian family . . . with . . . passion and fervor. . . . Enthralling.” —Italian Tribune

”We are made to reevaluate history and to look at the human cost both of ideals and failures in ideals. . .The period [Marciano] describes may have been given a stylish apotheosis by the early Fellini, but it can survive now only in elegies which, like this one, are really indictments.” —Times Literary Supplement
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“An engaging, sweeping and compulsively readable novel.” —The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Francesca Marciano’s Casa Rossa, a novel about the intertwined, often conflicting, loyalties of three generations of women in an Italian family.

About the Guide

Set against the political turmoil of the twentieth century, it portrays the fantasies and the hopes, true and false, that the women carry with them as they journey from the starkly beautiful landscape of southern Italy to the glamorous, trend-setting Rome of the 1950s and ’60s, to New York City’s art world in the 1970s and ’80s.

The story begins with the marriage of Lorenzo Strada, an artist, and Renée, the beautiful Tunisian woman he meets on the Riviera in the 1920s. They winter in Paris and spend summers in a farmhouse in Puglia lovingly restored by Lorenzo. For Renée, the house comes to symbolize Lorenzo’s determination to control and isolate her, and on the brink of World War II, she leaves him and their five-year-old daughter, Alba, and moves to Germany with her lover. Raised in Puglia by Lorenzo and a colorless, conventional step-mother, Alba makes her way to Rome after the war, where she marries Oliviero, an up-and-coming screenwriter, and is swept into the wild, promiscuous world of Italy’s booming film industry. When Oliviero dies under mysterious circumstances, Alba’s daughters, Alina and Isabella, face a future tainted by rumors of betrayal and unanswered questions that reach deep into the family’s history. Each seeks escape, Alina by fleeing her homeland for New York City, Isabella, by joining the Italian terrorist movement.

Francesca Marciano’s evocative portraits of rural Italy, Rome, and New York City create a vivid backdrop for the novel. Specific in detail, universal in its import, Casa Rossa is a profoundly moving exploration of the willful manipulation of personal and historical memory.

About the Author

Francesca Marciano is also the author of Rules of the Wild. She lives in Rome.

Discussion Guides

1. How do Marciano’s initial descriptions of Casa Rossa and the surrounding countryside [pp. 13, 15] create an emotional backdrop for the story that is about to unfold? What particular images or passages underscore the significance of the house in defining the relationships in the Strada family? How do the depictions of Stellario and the other villagers help to establish the family’s cultural and social values?

2. Is Lorenzo’s “indecent” fresco of Renée [p. 22] more than a reflection of his fury at her betrayal and departure? What does it reveal about his character and his beliefs about the roles of men and women in a marriage? To what extent does Renée share his attitudes? What marks the turning point in their relationship?

3. Why does Lorenzo describe Jeanne’s insistence on painting the house red as “Jeanne drowning Renée in a bloodbath” [p. 27]? What other interpretations of the name “Casa Rossa” emerge over the course of the novel?

4. When she is a little girl, Alba first hears the rumors that her mother worked for the Germans [p. 40-41]. Why does she ask Jeanne, rather than her father, about the stories? How does the language Jeanne uses to describe Renée—“nobody knew the story of your mother, where she came from, what her real name was [p. 42]”—convey the way the family has chosen to view Renée and her place in the family history?

5. How does the relationship between Alba and Oliviero mirror the relationship between Lorenzo and Renée? Compare, for example, the descriptions of the first meetings of each couple [pp. 10-13, 45] What is the significance of the men’s professions—a painter and a man who “makes stories” for a living—in attracting the women?

6. Why does Alina decide to move to New York City? What does America represent to her?

7. At the beginning of Casa Rossa, Alina says, “There is something that has been handed down from woman to woman in my family. I don’t know how to call it. A secret, an unspoken legacy—it needs to remain concealed, it’s something to be ashamed of” [p.14]. How does Alba choose to deal with the family’s secret shame? How does her choice affect her own life and happiness? What impact does it have on her daughters? Does Alina understand and accept the legacy by the end of the novel?

8. The manipulation of memory and reconstruction of the past is a major theme of Casa Rossa. What parallels are there between the stories the Strada family constructs and the historical record the Italians have constructed about their participation in World War II and about the domestic terrorism that explodes in the 1980s?

9. Is it essential for people to recognize and face up to mistakes and misdeeds committed by previous generations? Can denial—either personal or communal—serve a positive purpose?

Suggested Readings

Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis; Luigi Barzini, The Italians; Sara Davidson, Loose Change; Natalia Ginzburg, The City and the House; Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli; Primo Levi, The Reawakening; Michael Mewshaw, Year of the Gun; Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams; Marge Piercy, Small Changes; Scott Turow, The Laws of Our Fathers.

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