My best friend from childhood recommended this book to me months ago when she hosted my family for a weekend at her home. Although it took me a while to get my hands on a copy, I really loved the novel. As always, I am grateful for all of the fellow book-lovers in my life who make sure I don’t miss out on wonderful books. (Thanks Danielle!)
In The Shoemaker’s Wife, Trigiani writes a lush, descriptive story following the lives of two children born in a small Alpine town in Northern Italy who are forced to move from their beloved mountain and immigrate to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century.
Our hero and heroine, Ciro and Enza, meet on the mountain at the start of the novel. Despite the blossoming of youthful infatuation, their lives and circumstances pull them apart as first Ciro, then later Enza, leaves Italy to seek financial success in America.
The pattern of Ciro and Enza finding each other but being pulled apart by circumstances beyond their control continues as the novel moves forward through the decades. The pair repeatedly find one another, amid the crowds and chaos of New York City in the most unlikely times and places, but can not find a way to be together. Romance proves to be impossible to sustain in the face of the demands on their lives: their immigrant status, their reliance on their “sponsor” families, and their grueling work schedules. “We have nothing,” Enza says. “No, we have a history,” Ciro tells her. “No we don’t. We have only moments,” she answers. “Moments are history. If you have enough of them, they become a story,” Ciro tells her. Their moments do being to string together to tell us their love story.
The story unfolds through several decades and follows the main characters from age teenage until old age. In many ways its short but intimate glances into the lives of Ciro and Enza serve as a journal of sorts, outlining their daily lives of Italy and America. These stories paint brief but detailed pictures of the world at the turn of the century, and then later, through America’s westward expansion and both world wars.
Trigiani tells a wonderful, sprawling story of these two loving, kind characters. She paints pictures of their lives – in Italy and America – in great detail; including discussions of their meals (both decadent and meager), the clothes they wear (or long to wear) and the friends and foes they meet along their journey. The story rings with authenticity but does not feel drawn down with tones of desperation as immigrant stories often can.
In fact, it is this optimism that the author sustains throughout the story that is one of the most striking features of the novel. Slowly, painstakingly Trigiani tells us of their great romance. Her characters are refreshingly hopeful for their future, even when faced with set backs, illness, poverty, and grueling amounts of work. Ciro and Enza both want so much earn a better live for themselves and their families back home in Italy and they never give up believing that success is possible. But this is not a greedy success that they seek, but rather the modest success that means they can go home to their beloved mountain village and live out their lives with their families. This endearing optimism means that the characters incrementally see improvements and successes in their lives, and their future looks brighter with each passing chapter.
“Ciro had finally made a dreamer” out of a sensible girl “but at the same time their love felt as practical and durable as sturdy velvet that only gets lovelier and softer with age.”