Inspired by the lives of her own grandparents, who came to America from northern Italy in the early 20th century, Adriana Trigiani’s “The Shoemaker’s Wife” might be considered the ur-story behind her string of heartwarming family sagas. Free from the high-fashion brand names that infested the past couple of novels, this one is an old-fashioned, romantic tale of two star-tangled lovers, Enza Ravanelli and Ciro Lazzari. Beginning in the Italian Alps, the story travels by various routes to New York’s Little Italy, a Hoboken factory, backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, Minnesota’s Iron Range and the trenches of France. A love story, yes, but also a paean to artisanal work, food, friendship and family.
Ciro lives with his brother, Eduardo, in a convent in the town of Bergamo, deposited there when Ciro was 10 by their mother, who promised to return but did not. Although the sorrow and mystery of this abandonment are a constant presence in their hearts, the boys have made a good life with the nuns. Eduardo serves as secretary, accountant and calligrapher, and Ciro spends his days “tending the fireplaces, milking the cow, churning the butter, twisting fresh braids of scamorza cheese, chopping wood, shoveling coal, washing windows, scrubbing floors.”
For her part, Enza lives up the mountain in the little village of Schilpario. Her family earns a meager living running a mule-drawn “governess cart.” Enza takes a hand in every stable and household chore, in addition to which she is an ingenious and gifted seamstress. Throughout the book, her work is deftly detailed and conveys the visceral pleasure of doing things expeditiously and well.
Two fatal events propel the story across the Atlantic. When Ciro is sent up the mountain to dig a grave, he meets Enza, and a flame is kindled between the two teenagers. Alas, back in Bergamo, he discovers a priest in an ignoble act and, sacerdotal power being what it is, young Ciro is banished from the town. He makes his way to New York, where he apprentices himself to a shoemaker. Sometime later, the Ravanelli family suffers such reverses that Enza and her father, Marco, travel to America. Marco heads west to the mines, and Enza works as a factory seamstress in Hoboken.
Trigliani is a master of palpable and visual detail: She brings to vivid life the terrible ocean crossings, the tribulation of getting through immigration control at Ellis Island, and the whole look, feel and material reality of the New World.
Enza, who is determination and pluck incarnate,eventually finds a job sewing costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. Now and again, chance brings Enza and Ciro together, but the merging of their lives is repeatedly foiled until . . . . Well, I shall leave you to discover that .
There are sorrows, trials and death in this rich novel, but in its world, men and women shape their own lives and have dominion over them. Trigiani clearly knows how intoxicating that is for the 21st-century reader who sees her own life ebbing away while holding for the “next available customer representative” or worrying about the kids’ SATs. The shoemaker’s wife, as well as her family and friends, work hard, fashion well-made products that people appreciate, eat excellent meals made from scratch, drink their own wine and live in harmony with their families. It is a comforting fantasy, of course, but there’s a place for that in everyone’s life.
Powers reviews books and audiobooks for The Post.
THE SHOEMAKER’S WIFE
By Adriana Trigiani
Harper. 496 pp. $26.99