I think to understand Theresa Santangelo you must first meet her grandmother Carmela Santangelo, a widow who is visited by her dead husband Zio. Really visited? I'm not so sure, but on occasion she smells the smoke from his cigars and she does like to "talk" to him. Or ask his advice, but she's a pretty strong woman and she has her household saints and strong faith to guide her. Now when I say faith, don't imagine too much here. Imagine a nice Italian matriarch living in 1950s NYC's Little Italy. The proud mother of two children, Joseph and Evelyn, and a sausage maker par excellence. Joseph is a butcher who likes to cheat (but in the nicest of ways) his customers, flirt with the ladies and play pinochle every weekend. Evelyn, well Evelyn did not marry an Italian and moved to the suburbs, but she is there in the background.
Now, before I get too off track here, Francine Prose's Household Saints is a charming novel with much humor about an Italian family that is perhaps a little on the quirky side. The story is tinged with sadness. At least that was what I was expecting. Tinged. So while I am laughing and being amused, I will say on further reflection after having finished reading the book, I am thinking it is perhaps a serious, sad story that is tinged with a bit of humor. I'm not sure really. But if I was guffawing and smiling at the beginning of the story, but the end I was feeling markedly sober and reassessing things.
So, Mrs. Santangelo is not especially thrilled by Joseph's choice of a wife. Was it a choice? He won her in a card game. Pinochle. It was September 1949. And it was a hot end to the summer. Really hot. This is New York City and sometimes it really broils there. He and his neighbors, the Falconetti's, were playing cards in the back of the butcher shop. Their normal routine. Lino Falconetti and his son Nicky have zero luck when it comes to cards (or much else really). If Joseph cheats his customers when weighing out their meat (by putting just the tiniest bit of extra pressure on the scale with his finger . . .), you wonder what he does when he plays cards. So, it's hot, Lino is losing and typically he never knows when to stop. He begins with the IOUs and thinking what he can bet. Well, the men had been drinking (NYC, September heat wave, can you blame them?), so maybe Lino was a little further gone than normal. He bet his daughter in a card game. The winner gets a cool blast of icy cold freezer air. Yes, Joseph, if Lino wins, will open the meat locker for a cool blast of air. Something really refreshing. But the inevitable happens. Lino loses, and we're not just talking about an IOU here, but his seventeen year old daughter, Catherine.
Catherine is a young woman who has grown up with no mother (she having died when Catherine was only a baby). She's a bit runtish and loves movie magazines. Her cooking leaves a little to be desired. And she has no idea that her father bet her in a card game. That little detail she will learn much much later. Curiously when they marry, it all seems to work. Pleasantly surprised as to their compatibility in the bedroom, she does not immediately conceive. Did I mention the pair live with Mrs. Santangelo? Mrs. S. is not terribly happy with her daughter-in-law. With her religious overtures she sort of spooks Catherine into all the usual Italian/Catholic superstitions about child bearing so when Catherine does find herself pregnant, the house is pretty much ruled by the household saints. But the baby dies. And Catherine pretty much loses it. And so does Mrs. S. more or less.
Things in the Santangelo household become strained to say the least. And it takes something just short of a miracle for her to snap out of it. When she does she and Joseph find their common ground and common happiness, in the bedroom, too, of course. This time she conceives. On the night of this wonderful, happy event that sees Catherine coming out of her darkness and depression Mrs. S. drops dead. So one life begins and another ends. Keep that in mind. Her first pregnancy was a disaster, all that superstitious craziness. This time she decides she is going to do it all well and proper-the American way. Hospitals and prenatal visits. She is going to have a modern, American daughter.
Welcome Theresa into the modern world. Curiously (again), our modern young woman was conceived just as Mrs. S. was expiring, right? This actually, is the curious thing, while the two--grandmother and granddaughter--don't actually cross paths, somewhere along the way it seems, they do. Theresa Santangelo is the sainted grand-daughter that would make Carmela proud. No modern thinking, no wishes to be the independent career girl. She would prefer to join a nunnery. Quite the reversal of fortunes you might say. She takes as her guide the "Little Flower" St. Therese. And she is truly and utterly devoted.
I won't give anymore of the plot away. The ending was . . . curious (too), you might say. It is a charming novel and I think Prose is really sort of playing with stereotypes a little bit, gentle pokes perhaps and an ending that is unexpected but maybe couldn't have ended any other way all things considered. The novel was made into a movie, which I have not decided yet whether I will try and watch or not, but it would be interesting to see what the filmmakers did with this story. Once again an author has surprised me by telling a story that I was not expecting to roll out in the way it did. Not a bad thing. But a very interesting reading experience. I will have to check out more of Prose's work. I like it when a story takes a reader in a direction that is not entirely predictable.