That Summer in Sicily is the fourth Marlena de Blasi book I have read. When I picked up the first one, A Thousand Days in Venice, I didn't take to it right away. I am a Texan who writes exactly the way I speak, and I am irritated by flowery prose. However, I am also a sensualist, in love with taste, aroma, color, texture and sound. These elements—these things that define a particular place—come alive for me in these books.
Unlike her previous three memoirs, this story is not really about American Marlena and her Venetian husband. It is an almost unbelievable love story, a story about what it means to be Sicilian. As with most other adventures in her life, this one began with a writing assignment. Marlena was asked by a scholarly magazine to write a seminal piece on the interior regions of Sicily. Several people had already turned the job down, and soon she discovered why. Despite a meticulously drawn route and prearranged interview appointments, she was met at every turn with "misanthropic silences, closed doors and epic heat." Eventually she gave up.
Marlena's husband had come along for the ride, and before wending their way down from the mountains, they decided to take a day or two to recover. Finally, a policeman responded to their numerous inquiries for a place to stay. "There is a woman called Tosca. Her place is Villa Donnafugata (house of fleeing woman), although there's no sign to tell you so."
When they entered the gates they found what looked like a castle with sweeping gardens. In fact, it was nothing more than a hunting lodge, once belonging to the last Anjou prince in Sicily. Everywhere, they passed groups of women in long black dresses, laughing and singing as they went about their daily chores. A beautiful woman dressed in jodphurs and boots approached them. "I'm Tosca Brozzi. We'll be sitting down at one. I'll let you know later if there's room for you to stay."
From one of the other women there, Marlena learned that Tosca had inherited the villa from the prince, whose ward she once was. Bit by bit, she had restored the place. For more than thirty years she had lived there with an assortment of villagers who had found themselves alone, and in need of other people. This sort of communal life helped them to stay well, to stay young. Babies were born there, some people died there. "We are all related by affection," they said. "We are part of one another's history. We are Sicilian." They grew and prepared their own food, cared for the animals and for each other. Though there was much work to be done, it seemed to be merely a diversion to fill the hours between meals. "We eat often and well here, signora," Marlena was told. It was a society she never would have believed could exist.
"We never decide to stay but simply get caught up in the imperishable rituals and rhythms of the villa," wrote Marlena. One day Don Cosimo, a seventy-six year old priest, approached Marlena. He told her that he'd been the household's resident cleric and the prince's chauffeur when, fifty-six years previously, the prince had taken Tosca to live with him in the palace, a few hours drive from the lodge. "She was, even then, of that splendid arrogance. Leo claimed her when, I think, she was nine. Her beauty was already fearsome," he recalled. It was a common enough feudal custom, this sanctioned purloining of the children of one's peasants. Most people believed that the prince had requested Tosca. However, it was Tosca's father who'd offered her to the prince, in exchange for a stallion he coveted. And so Tosca was schooled by a French governess with the prince's daughters, tamed, formed, refined.
Later, it was Tosca who approached Marlena. "I'd like to tell you a story, Chou," she said. "Oh, I don't mean right now, of course. But soon. It's a long story, you see... It might take a few days. A week... I want to try out my story on someone from another place. I want to tell it to you, leave it with you, I guess, knowing that you'll go away." And so it began, the unfolding of a saga that spanned decades. It is a story that explores the ravages of war, poverty, the origins of the Cosa Nostra, the responsibilities of wealth and privilege, the cost of defying rigid traditions, the meaning of love, and finding one's true place in the world. It is also a story of miracles.
Born and educated in New York, Marlena de Blasi is a former chef, journalist, restaurant critic and cookbook author. She and her husband now reside in a palazzo in Orvieto, a hill town in the Umbrian region of Italy.
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