Monday, December 1, 2014

Literary Wives #12

The Shoemaker's Wife 
  by Adriana Trigiani

     I was correct in my assumption I would like this novel. With all I've read about the author, I felt certain she would be a favorite for me, and now she is! I was mistaken in believing this novel to be the first in a series, as it is a stand-alone. However, I have begun reading Trigiani's Big Stone Gap series as a result of reading this book! And I am loving it, too. Have you read this book? Or any others Trigiani has written?
Image courtesy of author's website

Be sure to check out the other hosting bloggers' reviews:
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J
Ariel of One Little Library
Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses
Kay of whatmeread
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
(Two others are currently on hiatus.)

     One of the main themes that has stuck with me from this book is the reality that following the initial invasion of this land and virtual annihilation of its native peoples, it is the hoards of people who arrived by boat who further developed what would become the United States of America. Native Americans are the only non-immigrants to this land. It always amazes me that certain folks believe themselves to be above others in social status. Hello! Excepting members of indigenous Native American tribes, our ancestors all arrived in the same way as "immigrants," so no one of us is better than the other...but, I digress...
     The first 20 pages of this book described a scene I found heartbreaking and unimaginable--a mother with no choice other than to abandon her two sons to the nuns of a convent. Why? Because her husband is dead, it is 1905 in the Italian Alps, and she is destitute and ill...there were no "social safety nets" back then, if you had no family on whom to rely, you were on your own to survive. Fortunately for Ciro and Eduardo, these nuns were quite kind, caring, and compassionate toward them. However, due to one immoral and unethical priest, they were finally split up in their teen years--Ciro was shipped off to the U.S. to work as a shoemaker's apprentice and Eduardo enrolled in seminary. 
     Ciro had always been a hardworking soul and he not only learned, but very quickly excelled at this trade. Not long thereafter, Enza and her father departed the Italian Alps to work in the U.S., sending every spare bit of money back to build a real house for their family on the mountain: she as a seamstress and he as a laborer. Thus begins the start of several near-misses and actual meetings between Ciro and Enza during their young lives, following that first kiss on their Alpine mountain. (I was reminded of One Day by David Nicholls.) My heart broke for Ciro when he had finalized his preparations over the course of many weeks to properly "court [Enza] with the dream of marriage, when and if that was her desire," only to find she had moved from Hoboken, and he had no idea where to look for her or how to find her. 
     As a result of this disappointment, Ciro enlisted in the U.S. army to "see the world and do his bit." I had not realized that military recruitment at that time was aided by offering citizenship to those who served, making military service the fastest route for immigrants to become U.S. citizens. Simultaneously, Enza begins work at the Metropolitan Opera House, sewing costumes, and meets Vito Blazek, who demonstrates and offers her a luxurious lifestyle previously outside her realm of possibility. Although initially agreeing to marry Vito, she ends up marrying Ciro, traveling with him, Luigi and Pappina, to Minnesota to begin a new life in the U.S. western frontier. And the rest, as they say, is history... (You'll have to read it!)
     Trigiani's characterization and descriptive language are totally engaging and transported me back in time; I felt as if I was there with these characters! Enza and Ciro had an immediate and complete attraction for each other, one that far exceeded surface level; I believe they were indeed "soul mates" as we would currently term it... As they crossed the ocean together, Ciro tells Luigi, "Everyone should have what they want," remembering Enza had shared this belief with him in their brief interactions on "their mountain" just before his sudden departure. She was seemingly always in his thoughts and he in hers, though she tried to deny this to herself many times over. 
     I have always admired the courage of those who choose to relocate outside their country of origin, with no knowledge of the language, culture, or customs of that new country. Of course at the turn of the 20th Century, most people had little to no real knowledge of any country or culture other than that into which they were born. I can barely imagine the reality of landing in a new country, unable to communicate with anyone other than those few who also speak your native language, etc. Now that takes guts! This book truly brought the struggles and successes of such immigrants to me, and I feel as if I have a much better understanding of their challenges. Interestingly, this story was inspired by Trigiani's knowledge of her own ancestors' experiences. 

Now for our "wifely" questions...
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?        
    Enza and Ciro were both introspective, realistic, and practical people. She realized that "...the life she'd always dreamed of, was about the family, not just two people in love. It was a fresco, not a painting, with details that required years of collaboration to create. A life with Ciro would be about family; a life with Vito would be about her." How insightful! This is why she chose life with Ciro, as she knew it would include caring about and loving others, not just someone loving her. Though as we later learn, Vito married at least three times, so it's quite likely he would not have remained as devoted to her throughout time anyway...or perhaps he was always dissatisfied with anyone but Enza. 
    Being a wife, especially in the early 1900's, was perhaps much more limited in scope than it is now. Although Vito obviously adored Enza, it was almost as if he "worshiped her from afar," without their having developed a deep-down friendship. Enza desired and/or needed much more than that from her lifelong relationship; she wanted to grow and develop as a person by interacting with and caring about others. A life with Vito would not necessarily have offered her such opportunity, but would have been a very self-centered superficial existence by comparison. This demonstrates that being a "wife" can have many different meanings.

2. In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?
     Literally, just as Enza is preparing to enter the church to marry Vito, Ciro arrives on the scene and stops her.
          "You would be mine."
          "This ring says I'm his." She showed him her hand, the ruby and diamond ring sparkled in the sunlight.
          "Take it off. You don't have to marry me, but you can't marry him."
          "Why not?" Her voice cracked beneath the strain of emotion.
           "Because I love you. And I know you. The man in that church knows the American Enza, not 
                the Italian girl who could hitch a horse and drive a carriage. Does he know the girl who sat by 
                her sister's grave and covered it with juniper branches? I know that girl. And she's mine."
           Enza thought of Vito, and wondered why she'd never told him about her sister Stella. Vito only         
                knew the seamstress to Caruso; he didn't know the Hoboken machine operator or the eldest 
                in a family who made it through the winter eating chestnuts, praying they would last until the 
                spring came. She hadn't told Vito any of her secrets, and because she hadn't, Vito was not 
                really a part of her story. Perhaps she had never wanted Vito to know that girl.
           "You can't come back here and say these things to me." Enza's eyes filled with tears. "I have a life. 
                A good life. I'm happy. I love what I do. My friends. My world."
           "What world do you want, Enza?" Ciro asked softly.                   (pages 310-311)
Enza realizes, "There would be such ease to life with Vito!" But in the end, "..she [was] meant to be with a man who understood her, down to her bones..." There were so many things involved in this exchange that revealed so much about these two people. Firstly, Ciro is an extremely kind, caring, and patient person, especially for a male of these times! Secondly, Enza is capable of deep introspection. Although she notes that "Life is a series of choices, made with the best of intentions, often with hope," she realizes those choices have brought her to this decisive point, and that the past does matter to her. I loved Ciro so much for offering his love and reasons, but allowing her to make her own choice, and offering her the option of not marrying either one of them. 
     I was struck by Enza's immediate reaction to Ciro, stating that wearing a ring indicates she belongs to a man--"I'm his." For the times, the idea of a wife belonging to a man or being owned by her husband was perhaps still quite acceptable, but for me, this was a shocker! Although Ciro was declaring some type of "ownership," it was based upon their shared experiences, heritage, and intimate knowledge of each other. Obviously, Enza desired to be much more than just a "wife" in these terms, as she was quite proud and satisfied that she could contribute her own money and work to a genuinely collaborative lifelong partnership with Ciro. 

If you've read this one, what was your reaction to it? What did you learn from it?

Image courtesy of
Macmillan website

Be sure to join us February 2, 2015, for our reviews of The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Carolly Erickson!

This one sounds fascinating!


  1. You have some interesting insights, Lynn. Maybe I should have stuck with this a little longer.

    1. I think you need to do what works for you, Kay! I know many readers who simply refuse to waste time on a publication they cannot "get into," and I admire that.

  2. So glad you liked it! You will have to let us know what you think about her other books, as well! Like me, it sounds like one of your favourite parts about this book is the immigration experience. I wondered how many people living here, now, would be willing to cross the ocean to a new country to work their fingers to the bone and send all the money home to their family. Enza made me feel lazy. :)
    I'm not usually a big fan of 'love at first sight', but it didn't bother me in this book. It was done quietly, and I liked that both Enza and Ciro could have been been happy even if they had never found each other again. They didn't spend their time pining away, but when the opportunity came, they chose to be together.
    I liked what you said about hoe Enza would have ended up being an entirely different wife with Vito than with Ciro. Partly because having a wife meant different things to the two men. It makes me wonder: How much of being a wife is defined by the husband and how much by the wife?

    1. Welcome to the LW co-hosting group, Naomi! I agree. Enza made me feel lazy, too. I'm pretty sure there are still people arriving in the U.S. as immigrants who do do work this hard and mainly send money back to their home country for their family members. Of course, working conditions have hopefully improved for the better overall, for everyone, but particularly for those least able to advocate for themselves. (I'm thinking of the harassment and physical attack Enza endured...) As Emily noted, this book had much to say about husbands, too! Ideally, I think there should be agreement between both parties' definition of each person's role within the relationship. Good point! How much does a woman rely on her partner to define her role as wife? I assume it would be the same quandary regardless of her partner's gender... And I'm sure it varies greatly. My personal feeling is this matters much less to most females now than it did in the past...

  3. There was an awful lot of ownership in marriage in this book, and thanks for pointing it out! I felt like Trigiani, in an effort to idealize her characters and their love, brushed over that part of it and made it seem worthwhile or right or okay because Enza was choosing it or not choosing it. And great point on the immigrants and how important that story is to our heritage. My own great grandparents came from Spain, and I'm always intrigued by books that explore this difficult transition because it helps me to imagine what my own ancestors went through.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Emily! I agree with your assessment of the marriage ownership; I felt she included it to depict what was acceptable at that time, but then gave Enza the right to choose. I have been told that my ancestors on both sides emigrated from Germany due to required military conscription, and this was WAY before WWI or WWII! That took real courage, in my opinion! Reading books like this make me want to know more about them.

  5. I'm really glad you talked about the immigrant aspect of it, too! That part of the story was very realistic and moving - especially Enza's struggles with whether or not she could return home. I can't imagine not being able to ever return to my home. :( I just struggled with how easy their marriage seemed. If some people really have marriages like that, I'm jealous!

    1. Yes, I chose not to mention her almost dying as a result of the ocean-going trip to the U.S., but I couldn't imagine the desolation you might feel at never being able to return. Especially for her, since as virtually all of us mentioned, family was ever so important to her. I also thought perhaps that was one reason she was willing to start over again with Ciro in the west... Ah, marriage! It is interesting that virtually all the rest of you mentioned you didn't like the "idealized" marriage, but I really didn't feel that way. For one thing, I felt as if they did have their bumps every once in awhile, but really, as someone (maybe Emily?) noted, there was were only about 100 pages of the this book devoted to their married life, so not a ton of information about it... It has certainly prompted some thoughtful discussion! :)