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  • Written by Ellen Cooney
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  • Written by Ellen Cooney
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Lambrusco

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The year is 1943. The Nazis have invaded Italy; American troops have landed. At Aldo's restaurant on the Adriatic coast, Lucia Fantini entertained customers for years with her marvelous opera singing. But normal operations are over. The restaurant has been seized by nazifascisti, and a Resistance squad of waiters and local tradesmen has been formed, led by Lucia's son, Beppino. When Beppino disappears, Lucia must journey across war-devastated Italy to find him. Aided by a richly drawn cast of characters, the story of her adventures is told with the vigor, drama, and lyrical grace of an Italian opera, in a brilliantly arranged narrative that places tragic events side-by-side with high comedy, domestic intrigues, and gripping details. In this captivating story of a mother and son, Cooney enters a world of peril and chance, and brings to life the extraordinary Resistance movement of the Italian people.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

On the train the whole world was the train.

No noise from the corridor. The other passengers had settled in. The door of my compartment was closed. The conductor had already been through. I was only traveling locally, going home, but nothing was normal; every journey was complicated.

No police, no soldiers. It was almost easy to forget that if it weren’t for soldiers and police, the trains would not be running.

My papers were in order. Lucia Fantini of Mengo. Age fifty-five. Born a Sicilian. The lady with the voice at Aldo’s. Widow of Aldo, mother of Beppi.

No problems: just a couple of brief confrontations. The usual. I knew how to raise my guard graciously, so the barriers didn’t show. To make it seem I’d said yes, when saying no.

“Excuse me, Signora Fantini, it’s a great piece of luck we’ve run into you. As hurried as you are, could you pause two minutes to sing something complimentary? Tomorrow’s our wedding anniversary, ten years. My husband was with the army in Africa. He doesn’t like to talk about it, in fact he doesn’t talk at all. It’s the same as if they cut out his tongue. But look, his ears are wide open. Just one short song, something lively?”

“Signora, pardon me, one night I heard you sing at your husband’s place which became your son’s, I’m sorry the Fascists took it, the bastards. In the company of my in-laws who were paying, as I’d never afford it myself, I thought only of an expensive dinner. No one warned me that Aldo’s had singing from the operas of our country. Sitting there unaware, I was destroyed for any voice except your own, and don’t bother thanking me for a compliment. It’s a fact. May the soul of your husband rest in peace, although truthfully, one doubts that it can, if he knows what’s going on. But I trust that one day soon, your splendid restaurant will come back to your family.”

The anxiety of departure was over. No mechanical trouble, no schedule changes, no last-minute boardings, no unexplained delay.

My two shopping bags were from a fashionable dress shop in Bologna, but they were heavy; they contained two sacks of flour. There was still black market flour to be bought. Buried inside, one to each sack, were German guns—Lugers, which my son called “useful, no-fuss bang-bangs, courtesy of our invaders.”

I minded the strain of making it seem that all I carried were tissue-wrapped dresses. In my purse were sturdy little cardboard boxes from a well-known confectioner’s, as if I planned to stuff myself with candy. The boxes were packed with ammunition.

I was too hot in my good wool coat. I should have worn something lighter, but the wool had the biggest pockets, for a pair of Berettas, as simple and small as two toys. One was wrapped in my blue and orange silk scarf, an end of which streamed from the pocket elegantly, like a fashion statement. The other was covered by a pair of gloves and some balled-up handkerchiefs.

Our bank accounts were frozen. I had paid the gun-and-flour merchant with a pair of Aldo’s gold cuff links. We were running out of jewelry. I no longer wore my wedding ring, but refused to give it up.

I wore no makeup. Sweat, and the possibility of tears, would have ruined it. I hated going out of the house like this, in this particular nakedness, and I was careful to avoid all mirrors. My throat was dry, and so were my lips and mouth, but not because I was thirsty. It was stage fright, the same old symptoms. Sometimes in the spotlight at Aldo’s, I’d feel I had swallowed a handful of sand.

But here I was, doing this again, pulling it off again: a lady out shopping, oh, there’s nowhere to go to dress up for, and I shouldn’t be spending what little money I have, but it came to me this morning that I should spit in the eyes of the war and buy myself something nice—and anyway, I was fed up with how the only other women going into good shops were women of nazifascisti.

The curtain on the compartment window, tattered and grimy, had been lifted, tucked back by some other passenger. I left it that way.

The train progressed slowly past narrow country roads, wide fields, closed-up houses, trees, Nazi trucks, Nazi tanks, Nazi soldiers in casual groups, smoking cigarettes, their helmets tipped back as if they were working on suntans.

It had rained heavily the day before, but now it was dry and shiny and clear. A perfect November morning, 1943. Every few miles, a small, fluffy pillow of a cloud came into view, framed by the window like a painting.

I thought only of home. This was Aldo’s birthday, his seventy-fifth. Just because he wasn’t alive was no reason not to acknowledge it.

Three-fourths of a century. A milestone.

I’d made up my mind to be festive about it, and not to let it bother me that Beppi’s reason for sneaking to the house later on would be simply to pick up the guns. There was no electricity—it had gone off a month ago. We were nearly out of candles. There wasn’t any meat, fish, or bread.

But tonight there’d be a real meal, although the pasta wouldn’t take the form of tagliatelle, the egg-and-flour noodles Aldo had loved, like all Romagnans. There weren’t eggs.

Marcellina Galeffi, our live-in housekeeper, had already cut up leeks for soup. There were tomatoes, chestnuts, artichokes, mushrooms, a few ends of cheese, a little oil, wine, basil, rosemary, and garlic.

Marcellina would do most of the cooking. She was right now at daily Mass in the village, safe with the priest, Don Enzo. “One of the good ones,” she called him. She was crazy about him: a bookish, mild-tempered man, the same age as Beppi—they’d been at school together—but his opposite in every way.

Enzo would come for the dinner. His family, the Malfadas, were cheese people; they’d supplied the restaurant almost exclusively. Aldo, then Beppi, let Enzo eat for free whenever he wanted, which had been pretty much daily. He had a private table near the back. He used it as an extension of the little stone rectory where he lived, and the church as well.

Just yesterday he’d told Marcellina, as a matter of faith, it was reasonable to expect that, any day now, someone would stick a pin in the German Army, and also all the fascisti, plus Mussolini himself, and also Hitler. Pop-pop-pop-pop, and this nightmare would end, with four deflations, and finally his stomach would operate again at full steam.

God bless him, he’d touched Marcellina, no easy thing at her age; she was seventy-one. It was all she’d talk about: balloons, Enzo’s belly, poppings. He’d made her feel tender, even though it only lasted one second.

I imagined the dinner preparations. I pictured my smooth old wood table.

In the center, a high mound of flour, volcano-shaped. At the top of the mound, an opening, exactly where lava would erupt.

It was always like this. I was born in a house facing Etna. I’d had plenty of time for my eyes to make imprints of the smooth Romagna hills, which never moved and never would, but still, if something was available to be formed in a mound—laundry, nuts, bittersweet greens from the garden, sticks for a fire, clams from the beach we couldn’t go to anymore because of the war—my hands made that shape, sometimes pointed, and sometimes with the top leveled off. Even those fleshy spots at Aldo’s hips were this way, another lifetime ago, the little mountains he called “the places where you like to hold on to me, not that either of them is where something important could burst from, heh heh heh.”

As if that were the reason he’d grown so stout. To give me something to hold on to. He had died nearly four years ago, at home.

Not a surprise. His cousin Ugo, the only physician he’d let anywhere near him, had been saying for ages that if Aldo’s chest were the hood of a car, he’d open it up to let everyone see that the engine was cracked and decrepit; the hoses were clogged beyond repair, and the whole thing was so dysfunctional, the only place it was headed was a junk heap. That was how he had put it. “Good thing you’re not a car, Aldo.”

At the moment of his heart attack, the fourth, the one that killed him, he was sitting at the table for lunch, drawing breath to blow on his soup, a fish broth made by Marcellina. He often had his midday meal at home before leaving for the restaurant. The soup was too hot; he’d been running late.

When the bowl crashed to the floor, it took Marcellina a moment to turn around from the stove to see what had happened. She thought he’d thrown it down on purpose. She was waiting for him to shout at her.

Now every time the wind blew hard against the kitchen shutters, she announced with a sigh, “There’s Aldo again, blowing. I’ll go out and tell him to be quiet. He knows what the Blackshirts have done, but he’s got to be patient, which maybe he’ll manage in death, having failed at it in life.”

Would Marcellina find milk in the village, to be mixed with water for the dough? She had taken some black market salt to be traded. There would have to be milk. Water into flour without eggs could be done, but water without milk?

I pictured a jug of milk and a saucepan of water heating up. Lacing the water with the milk. Not letting it come to a boil. Taking the pan off the stove. Bringing it to the flour. Tipping it over the mound, dead center. Pouring slowly: an eruption in reverse.

Marcellina would step in for the rough work: bending over the table, mixing and kneading, grunting from the effort, cursing. Until the last of the dough had been cut, she’d raise her creaky old voice—huge and a little raspy—against God, the Fantini family, her lot as a servant, her age, the hills, the farms, flour itself, Mengo, all Romagna, the Adriatic coast, and all of doomed, hapless, incompetent Italy. Against Germans and Fascists, she never spoke a word in the kitchen. She believed that if she did, the food would be poisoned.

Sunlight. Flour dust. A faint smell in the air of the sea. Mushrooms by the sink, waiting to be washed, with stems in the shape of bullets. Artichokes on the counter like a hill of spiny grenades.

A party to look forward to. No one in Aldo’s chair. No one else ever sat there.


From the Hardcover edition.
Ellen Cooney|Author Q&A

About Ellen Cooney

Ellen Cooney - Lambrusco
Ellen Cooney is the author of seven novels. Her short stories have widely appeared in magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, The Literary Review, and Glimmer Train. She has received fiction fellowships from the NEA and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and taught creative writing for twenty-five years in Boston and Cambridge, most recently as writer in residence at MIT. She now lives in midcoast Maine.

Author Q&A

An interview with Ellen Cooney, author of Lambrusco

How did an author with an Irish surname, living in coastal Maine, come to create Lambrusco, a novel epitomizing–and even mythologizing–the Italian partisan movement in the crucial war years of the early 1940’s?

The province of my novel, Emilia-Romagna on the Adriatic coast, is sort of where New England, my always home, is located in America. I come from Italians on my mother’s side. The Cooney is from my dad’s family who in fact are English, from Yorkshire, in Bronte country. I’ve always been keenly aware that I’m an American because of immigrants from two very different countries. As my English grandmother used to say–and she had spotted me as a baby writer from the get-go–“You get your words from us, and your spirit from those Italians.” I’m remembering myself at the age of about twelve, devouring Bronte novels with a background soundtrack of my Italian grandmother’s beloved Caruso. In the air are smells of tomatoes and garlic, along with steam from a pasta pot. On tv is one of the WWII films my dad–a WWII vet–never wanted to stop watching or talking about. I’d go from a Bronte to an American war novel without missing a beat.

The roots of this novel go deep. My Italian grandfather was a barber and one day as a very young kid–a kid who was always in the library–I found a picture of Mussolini in an old copy of Life magazine. My nonno looked so much like him, I became very nervous; I knew what a Fascist was. Although I was heartily assured that our family was on the side of the good guys, I went more with the barber thing, and cooked up a nonno as my own personal Figaro, of the Rossini. I’d known for ages I would have to get around to writing an Italian novel, but I kept putting it off, hoping it would take me over one day like a force of nature. Which it did.

Describe the distinctly Italian elements that compose Lambrusco, and how they work together in this big-canvas, big-cast-of-characters story.

The elements are music and songs, literary classics, food, politics, history, and most of all, people. All those other elements are part of the fabric of their lives, like the guy who wants to write an opera based on the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto, and the partisan-restaurant waiter who’s an amateur scholar of Etruscans. Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini, as well as Caruso, make appearances. I wanted to have lots of characters because operas do and my family does. Perhaps the most significant aspect is the motif of Lambrusco, the wine of the region. Any American who spent adolescence and young adulthood getting tipsy on the cheap, pop-soda-like stuff, which is often all that many Americans know of this wine–will understand what I mean when I say how overjoyed and amazed I was the first time I ever tasted the real thing–at a restaurant near the Italian Adriatic.

How did you go about researching? Your methods of narrative make the past become vibrant and present, and free of what’s generally associated with the genre of historical fiction. How were you able to enter the spirit and realities of the time, as well as the place?

First, because I’d long ago lost my connection to the language, I enrolled in an introductory language course in the Summer Language Immersion program at Harvard (why do anything halfway?). I was the only student over the age of twenty and I was at the bottom of the class the whole time; when I got an answer right in the orals, which wasn’t often, everyone gave me a brava, signora—the very thing I needed. I studied the Italian language for about eight years, including extended stays at schools in Italy—in Rome and then Emilia-Romagna. In those classes I was not only the oldest student, I was the only American and the only native speaker of English. I had to think about language and communication in a new, fundamental way. I gave so many impromptu lessons in English to the Italian teaching staffs, as well as to students from Japan, Brazil, the Philippines, and I don’t remember where else, it’s no wonder I kept flunking the daily quizzes. I failed in my efforts to speak, understand, and read the language at more than a low-intermediate level, but I learned the grammar and verb systems. It doesn’t seem logical to say that knowing about pronouns (optional as the subject of a sentence!) and verb conjugations (an awful lot of them!) made it possible for me to write a novel about Italians in 1943, but that’s what happened.
I was extremely fortunate, when I was poking around in archives in Italy, to have had the chance to look at hundreds of photographs. Archivists took pity on me for my limited language ability and kept bringing out boxes of pictures: partisans, bomb sites, villagers, gruesome photos of executed Italians–and my imagination took over. I was also lucky that so many of the Italians I met were willing to put up with my low-level skills and have conversations with me, especially older people, and absolutely every one of them had something to offer me when I said I was going to write about partisans. In a piazza in Ravenna, for example, four elderly men who’d found me studying a placque listing names of war-dead partisans spent a whole afternoon talking to me about their memories. They spoke slowly, in basics. I used everything they told me, as I had promised.

I was also able to draw on my lifelong passion for Italian literature and films. Big influences were Manzoni’s The Betrothed, my all-time favorite novel; the fiction of Beppe Fenoglio, whose stories about partisans made a deep impression on me (I first-named one of my main characters for him, changing the last vowel); Fellini, in whose footsteps I walked in Rimini and whose films have thrilled and infuriated me like no others; and Rossellini, whose Rome Open City was years ago the real first seed in my desire to write about partisans. When Anna Magnani gets shot and killed in that film–well, it’s unbearable. The whole time I was writing my novel, I envisioned my narrator/protagonist, Lucia Fantini, as an opera singing, gun smuggling, very-much-a-survivor Anna Magnani.

You’re a writer who treats narrative as an organic, living thing. Would you say that what drives the pulse of Lambrusco is your willingness to be daring with comedy and the force of imagination?

I didn’t play it safe in any way with this book, and that was largely based on the fact I had prepared for it for so long. And I was drawing on roots that go deep with me, and I was equally drawing on half a century of experience writing fiction. I published my first novel exactly 25 years ago, and when you do something that long, every day, always trying new things and practicing, practicing, there comes a point where you work up the nerve to take risks. I just gave it everything I had. I took leaps, threw caution to the wind, surrendered to it. Yes, it’s an organic thing. I lived it as I wrote it. I was lucky with the characters. My impulse is toward the sort of comic spirit that beats like a heart does. It took me almost my whole lifetime in the world of literature to understand why The Divine Comedy is called what it is. It’s not about being funny, although my novel very often is, and it’s totally earthy. The “Comedy” part is about being human.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A writer with style and heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine “This remarkably talented author writes in a refined, understated prose.” —The New York Times Book Review “A war story with personality.” —New York Post“Cooney's darkly comic journey of revelation triumphantly demonstrates the sustaining power of love, duty, family, and friendship.” —Booklist“Ellen Cooney's prose is beautifully descriptive.” —Charleston Post and Courier “Lovingly presented . . . touching . . . Cooney explores how war causes not just injury to the body, but more importantly explains how every participant can be ‘injured in his nerves, in his self, in his soul.’” —Kirkus "This is surely Ellen Cooney's most original work. Who else would have placed a squad of partisans in the Italian Resistance, who happen to be waiters in a seaside restaurant famous for the opera sung by the owner's wife, against a backdrop of bombed, wartorn Italy? The effect is positively Felliniesque."—Anita Desai
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A writer with style and heart.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Ellen Cooney's mesmerizing new novel, Lambrusco.

About the Guide

Lambrusco is the story of Sicilian-born Signora Lucia Fantini, a notorious Italian opera singer who failed in her career ambitions due to performance anxiety, and performs instead at Aldo's, her late husband's restaurant, now run by her son Beppi. When Italy is plunged into World War II, and the restaurant is seized by nazifascisti, Beppi and his waiters form a resistance squad; Lucia reluctantly becomes a weapons smuggler. When Beppi disappears after blowing up a German truck, she sets off to find him.

What ensues is Lucia's comic-tragic journey across a devastated country. In a gripping, elegant narrative that places tenderness and high comedy in the midst of the horrors of war, Lucia finds a way to use her beautiful voice as a means of survival, both in body and spirit. As she makes her way through the Italian countryside, we are introduced to a sprawling cast of vividly-drawn partisans, their families, and their American allies. There's Tito Roncuzzi, the butcher who has taught the neighborhood dogs to pee on the boots of fascists; Lido (Bino) Linari, the devilishly handsome waiter who is nicknamed for Mozart's Cherubino; Annmarie Malone, a professional golfer from Connecticut who's in Army Intelligence, and Ugo Fantini—a physician, Lucia's late husband's cousin, and the love of her life.

Cooney's novel unfolds as an opera, big in scope, intensely alive in its emotional power, and a testimony to the resilience and courage of ordinary people whose daily lives have been stolen and damaged, and they are willing to fight to get them back. It's a story of the strength of the human spirit, as effervescent in these pages as the wine that's the favorite of them all, Lambrusco.

About the Author

Ellen Cooney is the author of seven novels. Her short stories have widely appeared in magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, The Literary Review, and Glimmer Train. She has received fiction fellowships from the NEA and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and taught creative writing for twenty-five years in Boston and Cambridge, most recently as writer in residence at MIT. She now lives in midcoast Maine.

Discussion Guides

1. Lambrusco is a novel taking place in wartime, yet scenes of destruction and horror are often juxtaposed with flashes of comedy and a light, almost whimsical humor. Do you find that the comic elements dramatize a way of coping with the reality of one's life and surroundings in constant peril? Is the author saying something about a basic human survival mechanism?

2. How do the elements of opera function in the course of the novel? There's a large and colorful cast, highly charged drama, intrigue, adulterous love, family love and conflict, and even the novel-equivalent of a libretto. In a practical sense, how do the songs function for the “lady with the voice at Aldo's,” Lucia Fantini?

3. The essence of Lucia's identity, and of her life, is her voice as a musical instrument, yet her relationship with her powers is complicated. Is she sympathetic for her failure to create a professional, onstage career? She is hugely important to the people of her region, and to the restaurant as well, not only in a financial way—does she see herself as something of a failure? How crucial is it to the novel that the narration is first person? How do Lucia's descriptions of her performances apply to her role with the partisans?

4. Ellen Cooney's novels are highly varied in their subjects, but there is always a center of the act of creative endeavor, not only in art, but in daily life. Lucia Fantini is an artist figure, but what about the creative powers of the partisans? How much of the boldness and courage to become resistance fighters begins within the mind and soul of each partisan?

5. At the heart of the novel is a story about a mother and son, Lucia and Beppi. When Lucia learns that Beppi went off on his own to carry out a dramatic act of resistance to the nazifascisti, she gets mad at him. She wonders what kind of a partisan he is, not telling his mother about it, and then rushing off into hiding. Do you find this reaction encapsulating the feeling of any loving mother, or do you feel it's particular to Lucia and Beppi and the war?

6. How does the novel investigate the dynamics of non-military people choosing to become involved in resistance activity? Or, feeling they don't have a choice? How much of the spirit behind the impulse to form a partisan squad is uniquely Italian? Most of the partisans do not feel political about what they're doing. What do you see as their true motivation?

7. Were you familiar before this novel with the region of what now called Emilia-Romagna? How is the sense of place put to use? Were you aware of the widespread effects of the American bombardment of the region in World War II? Which scenes of wartime devastation stayed with you most when you had finished reading the novel? Which scenes of tenderness? Which of comedy?

8. Lambrusco opens as a conventional novel but quickly becomes unpredictable. As narrator, Lucia never knows what's going to happen next, or who will turn up. Did you find that this method of narration drew you into the events so that, as reader, you were living Lucia's life alongside her?

9. What's your reaction to Annmarie Malone? What kind of a person is she? What's she doing there? How do you feel about the hospital scene with her and Lucia? How does the author create impressions of the Americans in Italy? Did you feel you were reading from an Italian point of view?

10. How does Lambrusco resemble, or not resemble, other novels of World War II in Europe?

11. How do you see Lucia's relationship with Aldo? With Ugo Fantini? What is your feeling about Beppi falling in love with a woman who is deaf?

Suggested Readings

Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War; Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms; Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong; E.M. Forster, A Room With a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread; Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs; Dennis L. Smith, The Miracles of Santo Fico; Kathryn Walker, A Stopover in Venice; Salley Vickers, Miss Garnet’s Angel, Janice Y.K. Yee, The Piano Teacher

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