Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Friday, September 28, 2012 12:00 PM
The Trastevere district in the heart of Rome might not seem volatile, but in the new novel When in Rome, it represents edgier – and more interesting – territory than Kiwi-Italian writer Nicky Pellegrino has traversed in her six previous works of fiction. It’s where the teenage Serafina lives with her two younger sisters and mother, who works as a prostitute. The girls’ lives aren’t as grim as they could be – though the family is crammed into a two-room apartment in a crumbling building, their mother loves them and their basic needs are met – but their prospects are few.
In the Italy of the 1950s, the American opera singer and movie star Mario Lanza, the son of Italian parents, is a golden man; the biggest-selling recording artist in the world. His arrival in Rome to make a film is a much-heralded event, and a means for enterprising Serafina to help her sister Carmela launch a singing career and thus elude their mother’s occupation. Through ingenuity, luck and her best asset, native intelligence, Serafina meets Betty Lanza, Mario’s wife and the mother of their four young children, and is hired as an assistant.
In a vivid scene that illuminates Pellegrino’s gifts as a storyteller, Serafina bears nearly mute witness to the theatrical, chaotic rhythms of the clan’s existence. The Lanza family is the reverse of her own: nuclear, wealthy and unstable. Mario and Betty’s palpable mutual love cannot buffer them from her swings from polished, good-wife perfection to depressed lethargy, or from the effects of his punishing schedule, which compromises his every relationship and drives him to indulge in crushing compulsions.
At the time in which the story is set, the clock is running out for the Lanzas, and Pellegrino makes good work of dramatizing their biographies with an eye to the facts of the family’s fate.
Food is a feature, and there are the usual unctuous descriptions of gastronomic ecstasy (“sweet morsels of shellfish in a golden saffron soup, bread folded and flavoured with garlic and sage”). But it is also a foe; the substances from which Serafina draws so much pleasure, and which bind her closer to the family chef and helpmeet Pepe, bedevil Mario, who was a binge-eater and alcoholic. In When in Rome, he summons vast feasts to his bedroom until his weight gain has him threatened with termination by the movie producers, whereupon he subjects himself to crash diets and ascetic stints at remote European spas.
Indeed, Pellegrino’s treatment of food and communal eating, one of her favoured themes, is different in this work. Food is life, but she shows us that it can also be a plague, sinister and tormenting. Mario’s food addiction is juxtaposed with Betty’s abstinence, while Pepe frets over both, unable to understand how a person could either reject or abuse his delectable creations.
It’s a compelling, slice-of-life narrative told from the point of view of a wise teenager, and more memorable and poignant than Pellegrino’s good earlier writing. The stakes are high for Serafina and for her vulnerable charges, and whether the fate of the Lanzas can be ascribed chiefly to Mario’s fame or to unlucky genes is anyone’s guess, but Pellegrino ably conveys the both sense of a family headed toward doom and the sincerity of the young woman determined to save it.
Friday, April 26, 2013
Welcome to Coast Kitchen, a place to share and enjoy recipes. The Coast ...
Friday, May 24, 2013
Dan Brown's new novel, Inferno, features renowned Harvard symbologist Robe ...
Friday, May 24, 2013
Listen for your chance to win! This week on Coast, we have TIME, Rod ...