Hello, everyone! The old adage goes like this: don’t judge a book by its cover. But what about judging a cover by its book? With a novel like The Shoemaker’s Wife, I find myself hard-pressed to condemn such a gorgeous cover for the sins of the novel it contains. Alas, I write book reviews on this blog, not book jacket appreciation posts, so I must wipe away my tears and discuss the shortcomings of Adriana Trigiani’s historical romance. Where to begin? Perhaps with a spoonful of sugar…
Synopsis: In 1904 Italy, grieving widow Caterina Lazzari deposits her two sons Eduardo and Ciro into the care of the nuns in the mountain town of Vilnimore. Six years have passed when a sudden tragedy brings Ciro, now 16, into the path of teenaged Enza Ravanelli, a serious, hardworking mountain girl whose greatest wish is to care for her family. Before the two can make sense of their budding feelings for each other, both are whisked away to America, where their desires to make a new life for themselves test them in ways they could never have imagined.
My take: The Shoemaker’s Wife is like a piece of costume jewelry: beautiful in appearance, but hollow at its core. The greatest sense of artistry in the novel stems from Trigiani’s prose, which renders pre-war Italy in loving detail. Trigiani takes the time to describe every part of quotidien Italian life, from the way the streams in the mountain town of Schilpario sparkle in spring, to the shape of the pasta in Sister Theresa’s delicious soups. Trigiani’s extensive research and her intimate knowledge of pre-war life shines in the novel.
The problem, however, comes from Trigiani’s characterization. Titled The Shoemaker’s Wife, the novel ostensibly centers around Enza, yet it’s clearly devoted to Trigiani’s pet prince Ciro. And while the story presents itself as a romance spanning time and space, the actual romance doesn’t get on its feet until the last third of the book. Instead we have a novel of missed connections and two lives that wouldn’t connect except for some very, very serendipitous contrivances. I’m talking “showing up at the exact same hospital on the same day at the same exact time in New York City” type of contrivances.
The book jacket synopsis describes their relationship as “touched by fate” and claims that the “power” of Enza and Ciro’s love “will change their lives forever.” This is quite the over-statement. For one, Enza and Ciro meet about three times in the span of a decade before their love story actually gets started, and each time is more disappointing than the last. Disappointing because while Trigiani describes Ciro as an almost perfect male specimen, he’s clearly not the right man for Enza, and it’s only through Trigiani’s forced story that the two end up together at all.
For the second third of the book, Ciro and Enza live all of five miles from each other, yet only see each other twice in ten years. Unlike other star-crossed romances, where the lovers are separated by impossible stretches of time and space, Ciro’s only excuse for not finding Enza is apathy. Enza even tracks Ciro down to confess her feelings for him, and he just sort of ignores her. Trigiani wants us to believe that the two have an irrevocable bond, yet even Enza gives up on Ciro and ends up getting engaged to another man. Ciro doesn’t show up again until Enza’s actual wedding day to convince her to run away with him…and she does. How infuriating.
What’s most frustrating about this novel is that Trigiani characterizes Enza as a true tour-de-force. She works for six years as a quasi-indentured servant to send money back home to Italy, bluffs her way into a job as a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera, and builds herself a glamorous successful life from nothing. She’s independent, clever, talented, and engaged to a man who appreciates her skill, but as soon as Ciro shows up and puts in the bare minimum effort, Enza gives up everything for him. It’s so disappointing to see a female character act like that. It’s Enza’s friend Laura Heery who describes the situation best:
“What was wrong with the life Vito offered you?”
“Nothing,” Enza said quietly.
“Then why would you throw it away? Are you sure about Ciro? When we were working in Hoboken, you talked about him. And when we saw him on Columbus Day so many years ago, you told him your feelings, and he never came for you. I remember how miserable you were for months after that. I thought he was a heel. Doesn’t that worry you? Is he reliable?”
Enza sat up in her bed. “He has a plan.”
“Oh joy,” Laura said.
“I’m not going to stop working,” Enza vowed.
“I hope you like making shoes.”
“I’ll help him, and he’ll help me.”
“Really. A man is going to put your work on par with his? I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
Laura is exactly right in criticizing Ciro for his flakiness and for doubting that he’ll ever value Enza’s talent as a seamstress. If this were a more realistically written novel, we might actually see Enza grapple with these fears, or see the negative consequences of Ciro’s actions. But since this novel is almost a fairytale in its simplicity, Laura’s fears come to naught, and Enza and Ciro really do live happily-ever-after.
Enjoying this novel comes down to how willing you are as a reader to suspend your disbelief. I had difficulty rooting for a couple with so many clear incompatibilities. You know that meme about men getting acclaim for doing the bare minimum? That’s Ciro’s characterization in a nutshell. Time and time again, he puts his own desires over Enza’s, and I just couldn’t get behind that.
Secondary characterization is also weak. Everyone in Trigiani’s novel is either a saint or a sinner, with little room for nuance. Outlandish villains like Enza’s cruel employer or the corrupt priest in Vilminore create the few sources of conflict in a novel that otherwise reads like a chronicle of time passing by. Other characters are cardboard, like the dozens of good-natured, hardworking, American-dream chasing Italians that populate the streets. I’m not saying that Trigiani should be demonizing immigrants, but I would have appreciated some variety in the characterization. Surely not every girl Ciro meets falls in love with him, or wants to cook for him, or admires his brawn. Then there’s his brother, Eduardo, an aspiring priest who is…can you guess…saint-like in his virtue. Trigiani creates a novel with a vibrant landscape, but populates it with stiff caricatures of people.
Final Consensus: The Shoemaker’s Wife is an undeniably beautiful novel, but the romance at the heart of the book is too contrived and too incompatible to be convincing. Trigiani paints her characters as star-crossed lovers, but delivers a narrative that relies too much on “fate” and not enough on chemistry. And can we stop titling books like The So-and-So’s Wife? Enza, and every other character relegated to the title of “wife” in their own damn book, is so much more than that. So, Trigiani, my advice for your next book? Take out the flaky shoemaker and just leave the wife. She can carry the novel on her own.