The Saint of Lost Things

by Christopher Castellani

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

172 pages, 2005


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Lost and Found

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

 

It's 1946 and Antonio Grasso has gone back to the mountains of central Italy, Santa Cecilia, his birthplace, to find himself an Italian wife to take back to America. He's 25 and his parents want him to find a good wife from the old country.

It's easier than the womanizing Antonio expected once he sets his eyes on Maddalena for the first time. Beautiful, shy and elegant, the 18-year old girl is everything he's dreamed of. After the honeymoon he proudly returns to the family home with his new wife, convinced that babies will soon follow.

The story begins seven years later; there are no babies and the couple still share the home with Antonio's parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their children. In cramped quarters, with no privacy, they do the best they can, wondering what happened to their dreams.

Antonio's story is a familiar one. He dreamt of success and of having his own business. His job is going nowhere and he has given up on heirs, sending Maddalena instead out to work to earn extra money for their own home. Maddalena has come to love her work at the Golden Hem, numbing as it is, because of her associations with other immigrant women, and because the time she spends on the long bus trip commute is her own. She can relive her earlier years in Italy, remember the boy she left in order to become Antonio's wife, and try to picture her family. America has not been what she expected. Her dreams of her own children are unraveling and her relationship with her husband seems to be keeping apace. She can't help remembering that long ago boy in Santa Cecilia and tries to keep regret at bay with a strong front.

In The Saint of Lost Things, author Castellani does a brilliant job of bringing the Italian immigrant experience to life. Refreshingly, his female characters are as strong as his males. He doesn't flinch from showing this world honestly, including the immigrants' prejudice and cruelty toward African Americans, ironical indeed considering that the former were the newcomers.

Then there is Guilio Fabbri, a very different kind of Italian. He has lost his parents and is devastated and unable to function, something that might seem understandable until you realize that he is in his forties, still lives in the family home, and his parents have been gone nine months.

Guilio is a hard man to fathom. He sleeps half of each day away, has as much drive and energy as a sloth, and basically does nothing. It also appears that he has never had a girlfriend or a job. What a curious friend for Maddalena to latch on to.

Guilio can play the accordion, however, and for a while he plays for his meals at Antonio's brother's restaurant. This is the first time he has actually reached out to do anything at all and not surprisingly it opens the door to friendships and complications.

The plot is for the most part bleak and non immigrants may find it hard to relate to some of the Italian experiences. Whole extended families jammed into one house with no possibility of privacy or opportunities to develop marital relationships; nights spent in pointless conversation with in-laws and parents; in not doing what you want, would seem a twilight life to many of us. The protagonists' world is joyless. Maddalena regrets changing her world for this and we agree, but unlike some of us, she staunchly works at solid family relationships and endures, because after all, she is a good Italian wife, very good indeed, almost a saint.

Speaking of saints, their church, St. Anthony's, is named for the patron saint of lost things and it seems at the end that this saint repays their devotion and fortitude. Gradually, like writing etched in invisible ink, their world comes out of the shadows.

This is a gently unfolding tale told by a prize winning author. His other, much praised work is A Kiss from Maddalena, a national selection of the Readers Club of America and winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for the best work of fiction.

This brand new second work will certainly win equal honors. Castellani writes like a cinematographer. The reader can clearly see the neighborhood and its occupants, smell the cooking and feel the jolts on the bus. The Saint of Lost Things is a wholesome, family tale with nothing offensive and an optimistic ending. It could easily translate into the perfect family movie. There aren't many of those around. | October 2005

 

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.