Patras, Greece, is not the kind of city people choose to go to. Its architecture is dominated by boxy apartment buildings; its streets form a maze of one-way routes seemingly designed to prevent motion; its colonnaded sidewalks are rendered impassable by serried ranks of parked motorcycles. People transit through Patras, catching the ferry that will take them to Brindisi or Ancona or the Ionian Islands, or the train or bus that will take them to Athens. Patras is secondary to these other places, a placeholder, really. Just somewhere you have to sit for a few hours while you wait to leave.
But if you look closely, past the satellite dishes and the antennas and the graceless apartment buildings of rebar and cement, you can see the city it used to be before the war, with its neoclassical homes, its public squares, and its harbor with an embracing jetty. And you can always see the beauty of its geography: the deep violet of the Gulf of Patras, the Ionian Sea to the west and the islands rising from the haze, the mountain of Panachaïko, cypress-clad, sloping up beyond the vineyards that ring the city.
I set The Clover House in Patras because my mother’s childhood stories took place there—by the jetty, up the mountain, in those squares—and her stories tantalized me with their hints of who she had really been, and what had made her who she was. I spent much of my own childhood in the city, often trying to relive and recapture my mother’s experiences. In a sense, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been using Patras as a kind of live-in novel, a three-dimensional, real-life way to live an invented life. I always knew I loved Patras. But it wasn’t until after I had finished writing the actual novel of The Clover House that I realized the deeper role that Patras played for me, as a child and as a writer.
Growing up in a Greek household in the United States but spending summers in Greece with my family, I did a lot of coming and going—-linguistically, geographically, culturally. Like many bilingual and bicultural kids, blending in came naturally to me. In Greece, no one could tell I lived in America; and in America, no one could tell I had learned to speak Greek before English, and that I always spoke it at home. Many times, I felt this shuttling as a constant dislocation. I recall a pervasive sense of nostalgia, no matter where I was at any given time. But one thing was certain. When I was surrounded by my family in Greece, embraced by grand-parents, cousins, and above all aunts, I belonged. Nowhere—-not even in my New England hometown—-was that belonging more emphatic than in Patras.
The Patras of my childhood was a land of women—-women who gave me independence and who smothered me with affection. Though they were my aunts, they served, bless them, as my mothers, filling in where my own mother lacked motivation and desire. I suspect now that my aunts and other maternal stand–ins did this quite deliberately. Seeing my need, they circled around me with a perfect balance of strictness and solicitude.
My Aunt Elli’s husband, Pindaros, had a word for all these women: tsoupoules. Don’t look for the word in any dictionary; it was the product of Pindaros’s delighted imagination. The tsoupoules were my two cousins—one exactly my age and her sister old enough for us to idolize—my Great aunt Eugenia, later on two little nieces, and always my Aunts Zita, Elli, and Alexandra. They weren’t really my aunts, any more than my cousins were really my cousins. In America, you’d call them something once or twice removed. But my mother had grown up with these women in the same house. And in the way they embraced, chided, and encouraged, there was nothing removed about them at all.
Pindaros would giddily proclaim himself to be surrounded by tsoupoules when he came to join us at the beach each day. It wasn’t a fancy beach—just a thin strip of coarse sand and pebbles outside the city, and running in front of a tavern shaded by giant eucalyptus trees. We would come up from the sand, salt standing in crystals on our skin, and find Pindaros at a long table beneath the trees, their trunks whitewashed to thwart insects. He would sit there in his monogrammed shirt and dark-framed glasses, his hands scrubbed clean from his surgeon’s practice, looking like some jovial Onassis. He would order what he knew we liked, and we would sit in our bathing suits to eat plates of fried anchovies, wedges of watermelon, and chunks of fresh bread.
Pindaros wanted to hear what all the tsoupoules had been up to that day, but as soon as he had returned to work, the aunts’ conversation shifted to the past. My cousin Zeni and I crunched our anchovies—each one a single bite—and watched the aunts make one another laugh with reminiscences. The boy who wore trousers perpetually too short, lending his name to the phenomenon of flood pants. Hiking trips up Mt. Panachaïko to glide down on skis. How they flooded the entire basement of their grand house in the heart of the city, just so they could play Slip ’N Slide across the hallway tiles. How they raised silkworms and sold the cocoons to the neighborhood children during the war. The crazy cow that chased the aunts into the hayloft on their farm outside the city.
It’s true that this list hardly seems substantial enough to have provided summer after summer full of lunchtime stories. How much can you say about a boy who wore short pants? But as all storytellers know, and as all listeners come to discover, the telling sustains the tale, gives it new energy and life. It was those repeated tellings, I’m convinced, that taught me the power of stories and that gave me the unshakeable conviction that through stories we shape our lives.
Most summers, my mother returned to Athens before me, sometimes to meet my father for a trip outside of Greece, leaving me in my aunts’ care. When she was there to take part in these storytelling sessions, she revealed herself to be a master of cadence and pacing, an expert of the witty phrase. She often found humor and whimsy that others had missed. When I listened to my mother joining in with the aunts, I saw a side of her that I loved and craved more of, but a side of her, too, that I could never reach. In The Clover House, when Callie remarks on the way her mother’s stories fascinate her but keep her at a distance, it’s my own experience I’m evoking. In fact, I come to stories—not just particular fictions, but fiction in general—with that pervasive sense of nostalgia. My love for the story goes hand in hand with the sadness of not being a part of it—of being shut out, stuck in reality while the imagined world spins on just out of reach.
Zeni and I did our best to relive our mothers’ stories. Like them, we played in Psilalónia, shrieking at the bats that swooped over our heads; we visited the cave in the headland of Dasaki; we ate grilled corn on the cob from street vendors in the colonnades. One summer, we bought silkworm cocoons and kept them in Zeni’s basement, feeding the silkworms leaves from the mulberry trees that lined the sidewalk.
But the one adventure we never could recreate was the building of the clover houses. During their childhoods, my mother and the aunts spent parts of the summer on their family’s farm just outside Patras. The area where it once stood is just a short drive from the harbor now, but in the 1930s and ’40s, it was a good carriage ride from the family’s neoclassical house. On the farm, the overseer used to cut a miniature neighborhood out of the tall forage grass in one of the pastures—a grass called trifîli that translates best as clover, but was probably a combination of clover and rye grass. My mother, her brother, and her four cousins (the three aunts and my one eccentric uncle) all played in this neighborhood of grassy streets and houses made of clover and rye for hours, hidden from the world of adults. If I were to ask them now to tell me about the clover houses, my aunts and my mother would sigh with longing and satisfaction, reveling anew in their remembered idyll.
To me, the clover houses seemed a truly magical idea, a children’s world that was at once safe and exotic, domestic and wild. I was growing up with woods and rocks in New England and with beaches and city streets in Greece; an open space like a clover field was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I learned, during the early writing of The Clover House, that my best friend had experienced something like this in Massachusetts, I was astonished and a little jealous. How could the clover houses from my mother’s fantastical childhood exist in my own reality and still pass me by?
The idea that someone could fashion a house for you where no dwelling was ever foreseen has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. The creation of a safe and secret place out of almost nothing this concept resonates at the heart of The Clover House. Callie’s dislocation from her relationships, her mother, her heritage is a form of what Greeks know as xenitia: self-imposed exile. It’s that isolation and longing of the self-exiled that the clover houses came to represent for me. In a sense, The Clover House is my clover house. It’s how I created for myself the Patras that I loved, and love, and the Patras that I never knew. It’s a world I shaped from what I already had, just as the farm overseer cut the dwellings and streets from the tall grass. And it’s just as fragile, just as ephemeral.
My last trip to Patras took place in March 2011, during Carnival season. While I was there, I couldn’t help following in Callie’s footsteps quite literally. The currents of Carnival and the pull of my family made the duplication inevitable. Like Callie, I stood in George’s Square and watched the parades, deafened by samba music. Like her, I stepped into the quiet of Aghios Andreas for the services of Forgiveness Sunday. Like her, I went across the Gulf of Patras to Nafpaktos for an afternoon’s Carnival respite.
One day, my cousin Alexandra and I drove just a bit out of the center of Patras to a neighborhood of one story houses and chicken wire fences. She pulled onto the broken curb and put her hazards on so that I could dash across the street with my camera. Through a gate, a dirt road disappeared into an overgrown copse, and a black dog barked over his shoulder at me. That was the farm. That was where my mother and her cousins had sat inside their clover houses, hidden away from the real world, lost in make believe. In all my childhood visits to Patras, no one had ever taken us there. I assumed the place had been built over. Now I think perhaps the aunts had given up on it, as if unwilling to bring the farm and the clover houses into a real world that was so changed. That day during Carnival, I stood at the gate, pointing my lens through the fencing at a world that was no longer there, looking in at a place just out of reach. I took a picture.
I still have the photograph, but only in my computer. Though my study is littered with artifacts and photographs from my family’s past, the photograph of the farm is one I may never print. It’s better left to memory and to my imagination.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Callie grapples with the disassociation of being a Greek American, perceiving herself as an outsider in a land that is both familiar and yet wholly foreign. What steps does she take to reclaim this distinct piece of her identity, and does she always go about it the right way? Has she managed to embrace both cultures by the end of the novel, or does she still feel the need to validate herself in the estimation of others?
2. Clio returns to Greece in the wake of her husband’s death, after having lived in America for more than thirty years. Callie considers that “It must have been hard for her to fit back into the Greek life her sisters had been living. Defiantly not American, she was no longer altogether Greek either.” In what ways does Clio’s experience of attempting to assimilate back into a life she left behind mirror Callie’s, and in what ways do they fundamentally differ?
3. Callie clings to the idyllic stories of her mother’s childhood in Greece—-of the “mischief and delight” she shared with her siblings that eventually gave way to darkness and despondency in her adulthood. What was it like for Callie to realize that her version of events had been based on romanticized memories and utter falsehoods? How did this awareness affect her already tenuous connection to her mother?
4. Callie is struck by how submissive Aliki has become in her marriage, which runs completely at odds with her fierce, unyielding nature as a teenager. Discuss how gender roles and expectations differ between American and Greek cultures, and how this has informed relationships and perceptions within the novel. Is it fair for Callie to judge Aliki’s position based on this, and do you think Callie ever comes to see more nuance in Aliki’s behavior than she had originally thought?
5. In her intimate relationships, Callie tends to assume failure. Why does she deny herself happiness time and again? What finally prompts her to change this pattern?
6. The novel takes place during the Greek celebration of Carnival, a time of wild abandon, extravagance, and self–indulgence. Interestingly, Callie is simultaneously seeking to gain a stronger understanding of herself within the context of her family, her relationship, and her culture. In what ways does this backdrop, and the beginning of the Lenten period that follows it, affect these areas of her life, and either help or hinder her from arriving at a place of greater clarity?
7. At one point, Aliki asks Callie which choice is braver: “to live your life every day or to lug some mysterious past around with you as an excuse not to.” Callie is not the only character to be deeply and immutably affected by the past, but is she, as Aliki insinuates, the only one who seems to be stunted from moving forward? How have the others managed to achieve liberation?
8. Clio engages in a high–stakes relationship during the war that costs her family everything, after which she seemingly spends the rest of her life in a state of penance. She abandons her dreams for the future, enters into a dull and troubled marriage, and flees to America only to hide behind draped windows and cast a pall over her household. Do you think it was right for her to behave this way, considering the combination of her naivety and the extreme circumstances she was forced to grow up in? Does Callie’s understanding, forgiveness, and urging enable Clio to absolve herself, at least to a small degree?
9. What about the second, and perhaps heavier, burden that Clio bears: the shame of the betrayal of Yannis? What, if anything, do you think allows her to cast off that burden?
10. How did the novel’s alternating between Callie’s contemporary visit to Greece and her mother’s WWII–era experience affect your reading? Did you feel a stronger sense of empathy for Clio as her story unfurled alongside Callie’s present–day investigation into her elusive past?
11. The war brought on a series of power shifts that blurred the lines between who could be considered an ally and who a foe. As Giorgio tells Nestor, “It’s a war. Times change. Now, Greeks and Italians, we’re on the same side. It’s official. We even gave you Greeks our guns.” How does this shadowy notion of who can and cannot be trusted impact the characters and play upon their sympathies?
12. Nestor’s note to Callie contains a passage she finds perplexing: “What seems important now was once insignificant and will become so again.” What do you make of the meaning? How does this message apply to the novel as a whole?
13. Do you think Callie and Clio are similar in personality, or not? In what ways do they differ and how are they alike?
14. What do you make of the fact that so many of the stories people tell or remember turn out to be untrue? How does that affect your take on the novel as a whole?