Tale of romance is more than chick lit
Annex resident Gina Buonaguro and writing partner Janice Kirk seem to be making a career out of fictional North Americans confronting older cultures. Their first well-received novel, The Sidewalk Artist, took a New Yorker on a trip through the art centres of Europe and into the past to discover Raphael’s lost lover.
Now Ciao Bella centres on a Torontonian who finds in Italy not one but two loves of her own. But she stays in one place far from the cultural highlife in hilly Northern Italy.
The time is immediately after World War II, as the Italian peasants struggle to recover from the triple devastation of Fascist rule, Nazi occupation and joint partisan-American efforts to free them. Many have suffered unspeakable horrors. Our Toronto-born and raised girl, Grace, or Graziella as the locals call her, is married to the love of her life, a sweet-voiced but hot-blooded Italian partisan who has not returned from fighting the Nazis and is rumoured dead. Stuck on a decaying farm awaiting word on his fate, she struggles further for acceptance among the rural Italian people, most of whom seem to be part of her extensive family of in-laws.
Meanwhile, a decommissioned American soldier has taken up residence in
her barn since his motorcycle broke down near her place. He helps her
get the farm back into shape. The neighbours are all atwitter, trying to
draw the handsome young soldier’s eyes to their unmarried daughters and
gossiping enviously about what’s going on between him and Graziella.
This part of the novel unfolds as expected, but beautifully so. Buonaguro and Kirk have a knack for making characters memorable without turning them into caricatures and for writing about their feelings without getting sentimental. The scene for the drama to come is set slowly, drawing surely the rustic social milieu and Grace’s own emotional background.
The inevitable takes place, pleasing the romantic reader tremendously no doubt, but then the plot takes several further twists: revelations about the major and minor characters. Never arbitrary but rooted in what we’ve learned already. And a decision has to be made by Grace (or is she really Graziella?). Then the bittersweet conclusion.
Ciao Bella is a romantic story, even weepy at times. But it is a credible literary feat as well, more in the vein of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Time-Traveler’s Wife, than a drugstore romance.
There is never an aversion of eyes from the gritty realities of life during that terrible period. Some of the subplots, especially one involving a girl who had apparently been raped by a German soldier, are rather tragic.
In the vernacular of today, this is not chick lit. Or not just chick lit. Lit for anyone with a heart.