All This Talk of Loveby Christopher Castellani
It’s been fifty years since Antonio Grasso married Maddalena and brought her to America. That was the last time she saw her parents, her sisters and brotherseverything she knew and loved in the village of Santa Cecilia, Italy. Maddalena sees no need to open the door to the past and let the emotional baggage and unmended rifts of another life spill
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It’s been fifty years since Antonio Grasso married Maddalena and brought her to America. That was the last time she saw her parents, her sisters and brotherseverything she knew and loved in the village of Santa Cecilia, Italy. Maddalena sees no need to open the door to the past and let the emotional baggage and unmended rifts of another life spill out.
But Prima was raised on the lore of the Old Country. And as she sees her parents aging, she hatches the idea to take the entire family back to Italyhoping to reunite Maddalena with her estranged sister and let her parents see their homeland one last time. It is an idea that threatens to tear the Grasso family apart, until fate deals them some unwelcome surprises, and their trip home becomes a necessary journey. All This Talk of Love is an incandescent novel about sacrifice and hope, loss and love, myth and memory.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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All This Talk of Love
By Christopher Castellani
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2013 Christopher Castellani
All rights reserved.
La Famiglia Grasso
Frankie grasso and his mother watch the same soap, but they root for different women. He likes the deranged ones: the pregnancy fakers, the poisoners, the tramps. They are necessary research for his chapter on the legacy of the gothic in the construction of female identity. His mother favors the patient, dutiful wives—they of the shellacked hair and pantsuits and unshakable faith—and looks to them as examples of proper behavior in 1990s America. Frankie shouldn't be surprised. His mother's life has been a jeremiad in two languages and two countries, and her seventy-two years have taught her to distrust romantic passion. Precious minutes on the phone with Frankie she spends wishing doom on the amoral women of daytime, shocked that some network executive has allowed them to stray so far from decency in the middle of the afternoon. "In life," she says tonight, after Frankie praises the pregnancy faker for her resourcefulness in finding her long-lost identical twin sister and persuading her to carry the baby she can't admit she lost, "you have the truth or you have nothing," and what he wants to tell her is, by that formulation, not a single member of the Grasso family, not to mention anyone he knows, has a blessed thing.
Instead he says, "I'm exhausted. I've been working all night on this chapter. My phone bill's ten pages long. Wait until she has that baby, then we'll see."
"I call you back right now," she says. "I have the money. Daddy put me on a plan: ten cents a minute. If you can call your cousin in Avezzano twice a week, I tell him, I can call Boston for a few dimes."
"I need sleep," Frankie says. Then: "All right, call me back." He hangs up and takes a sip of whiskey. The light comes on in the window of his neighbor's house, an identical triple-decker but better maintained. Recently, in his German immersion course, Frankie invented the adjective zusammengedrängt, or "thrown together crowdedly," to describe his neighborhood. He loves his word, which looks and sounds like the claustrophobia it conveys, and connotes the grime and desperation of those thickly settled towns that surround a city. His street is populated mostly by low(er)-class Italian and Irish families jealous of their countrymen in the North End or Charlestown, who step from their front doors onto charming streets lit with gas lamps and lined with exposed-brick restaurants.
"This is your home now," his mother said the one time she visited. She stood on his crumbling front stoop with her arms outstretched, facing the vista of chain-link fences and vinyl siding. "It's ugly, but it's yours. You'll never want to leave."
"It's only a six-hour drive," he said. "I'll be back all the time." Instead they settle for Frankie's nightly phone call at 11:01 no matter where he is in the world, one of their many promises to each other.
Frankie's friends call their parents once a month and fly home twice a year, less often if they can swing it. Like him, they toil in obscurity in the service of literary scholarship. They have advanced degrees and drug habits and a love affair with irony. Unlike him, the toil (or is it the obscurity?) has soured them on distractions like family and authentic human connection. "You really talk to your mother every single night?" they ask him. "How? Why?"
"Because she's alive," he says.
"But what do you talk about? I haven't spoken an honest word to my mother since kindergarten."
"Who said anything about honesty?"
He lets the phone ring five or six times, imagining his mother on the other end staring into the receiver. When he finally picks up, she says, "What's wrong with you?" and though he thinks of three things off the bat, he treats the question as rhetorical and lets her talk.
Maddalena Grasso switches the phone to her left ear and again takes up her husband's pants, which she has been hemming off and on for hours. She's been on the phone since eight o'clock: first with her daughter, then her friend Arlene from the dance studio, then Sister Mary asking another favor for the church, then a wrong number with a friendly voice, and now, finally, always finally, her Frankie.
"Your sister was here this afternoon," she says. "You should have seen: she had my old sweat suit on, the pink one with the rhinestones on the cuffs your zia Ida gave me thirty years ago. She's like a hurricane, your sister, never any time to sit and have a conversation. She ate a bowl of soup and some pasta leftover standing in front of the sink the whole time like a peasant. I said, 'Sit down one second! It's not good always to rush,' but she has no time. She's going to call you this week, she said. She's going to tell you she and Tom got that plot, the one with the water. They had the meeting with the builder, and they got it."
"The lot, you mean," says Frankie. "Not the plot."
"Lot, plot, whatever. And you know the land next to it, you saw it last time, it doesn't have any water, but it has those tall trees like you like. It's an acre, almost, for sale. And I was thinking, Daddy, too, how beautiful it would be for you to live next door to your sister. And you won't have to throw away your money on rent anymore."
"Who's got that kind of cash?" Frankie says, though if he doesn't shut her down now, she will offer at least a down payment, a cut of the money she and his father have been saving in his name since the night of his conception—a night she's told him about in more detail than was necessary. For a moment, Frankie allows himself to imagine the unimaginable: he and his girlfriend, Professor Birch, clearing the brush from their little strip of yard, she in her tank top and hairy armpits and army-issue boots, waving to his sister and brother-in-law from across a koi pond. Professor Birch is not the type for big Sunday dinners cooked and served and cleared by women, for shared acreage, for lawn care. She is the type who phones her husband while Frankie's inside her to remind him to mail the insurance bill, who makes Frankie call her Professor even when she's naked and sullied and rummaging under his bed for her socks. She is exactly the type of woman his mother was afraid he'd meet in the big city.
With or without Professor Birch, Frankie has no plans to move back to the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, a fact he can never admit to his mother. He has been called to a bigger and deeper life, far from the narrow bed in which he was planted. And yet it is a stipulation of his unspoken contract with his parents that he treat this stint as a graduate student in Boston as temporary—a regrettable but necessary period of time away from home that will allow him to return in triumph as a doctor of philosophy in English literature, secure a highly paid professorship at the university, marry a sweet Italian girl, and start a family like his sister did and his older brother would have done, had he lived.
When Frankie is quiet for too long, Maddalena worries: he is jealous of his sister and brother-in-law and all their money, he is falling in love with Boston and will never come home, he is too young and confused to think about plots. Let him be, she thinks, but how impossible that is! So she tells him her stories over and over again, in different words but with the same lesson at the end of them, stories about how it was for her to be brought to America from her village across the ocean like a piece of furniture, in love with one man but married to another, a stranger, and just a teenager she was, without a word of the language, and none of it by choice, not at all like for Frankie, who left his mother in Wilmington four years ago not for love or money or a better life but for school, as easy as you'd leave a movie if it wasn't making you laugh.
"You know Prima saved you a place at the table for the confirmation," she says. "She has to tell the catering how many people. Every person who doesn't show up, she still has to pay forty-five dollars."
"I told her I wasn't coming."
"You should come," she says. "To respect your sister. Not because you want to or don't want to."
"To be honest, I'm disappointed Patrick's getting confirmed at all. I had high hopes for him when he became a Buddhist and gave away his stereo."
"Don't even mention that," his mother says. "He's normal again now, and I've never seen your sister more happy." She takes a pin from between her lips. "You know, you can bring somebody if you want. I pay for the train for both of you. Prima put you down for two just in case."
"I don't need train money."
"Forty-five dollars a person," she repeats. "And that's without the open bar. Can you imagine? And if you don't belong to the country club, you can pay a hundred dollars a person and still they don't let you have the party there." She lets that sink in for Frankie, though elegant things have never impressed him.
Maddalena held all three of her children's First Communions at the Al Di Là, the Grasso family restaurant, where there was home cooking and plastic red tablecloths and white crepe paper hanging from the walls. First the party for Prima, the first child, her daughter, the angel; then for Tony, the first son born in the new country; then, seventeen years after him, for Frankie, who saved her. Every night when the phone rings and he's there to say, "Hey, Ma, what's up?" he saves her again.
Frankie rubs his eyes. Even if Professor Birch could ditch her husband, he knows exactly what they'd do at this silly fete: chug free cocktails, gorge on the buffet, and spend the rest of the time on the lobby couch sneering at Prima and Tom's unexamined embrace of Catholicism.
Worse, Prima's already called to inform him that the confirmation isn't all the Grassos will be celebrating. She has a big announcement, one of her famous surprises, one she wants Frankie to hear in person because it will affect the entire family. She offered no more details, convinced he'd blab to their mother.
"Turns out I have to present a paper that weekend," he says to Maddalena. "Not that anyone ever asks me about my schedule. It's kind of a big deal, actually."
"They just tell you now?"
"The university's not very organized. Harvard. What do you expect?"
"Yes, Harvard. Does that make it all right? I can miss the formal induction of my innocent nephew into the racist, sexist, xenophobic institution known as the Roman Catholic Church if I'm speaking at Harvard?"
"Do they pay you?"
"Something like this you don't do for money," he says. "You do it for the prestige."
The truth, of course, is that there is no paper and no invitation from Harvard, which won't even let Frankie into its fortress of a library, let alone the "Millennium Reproaches: Anxiety and Authorship in the Fin de Siècle" conference. There is certainly no prestige. Despite employing some well-connected and widely published professors (Dr. Birch among them), Frankie's graduate school is solidly second tier, and Frankie himself is passionately meeting but not far exceeding its modest expectations. Upon earning their PhDs, he and his classmates can expect not tenure-track positions at coastal universities or the Seven Sisters but—if they're very lucky—Comp and Rhet jobs at mega state schools in Des Moines or Tallahassee or some other regional-airport city, where their bitterness will thrive like kudzu. As far as Frankie knows, he is the only one sleeping with a professor, an advantage he counts as distinct in the job market.
"Your sister will be devastating," his mother says. "But school is more important."
"I'm sorry," Frankie says. "I really am. This semester's strung me out. I'm not myself. Tell everybody I feel terrible."
"Do what you have to do," Maddalena says. "That's why you up there. Work hard. Stay straight. Drink some whiskey—it helps you sleep."
"Excellent idea," he says.
"Good night," she says. "I love you." "Love you too, Ma. Good night."
"Good night, Frankie," she says. "I love you, I love you." It's important to her to say the words until she's sure he's hung up.
"Bye, Ma," Frankie says. "I love you. Bye." It's important to him to say the words until he's sure she's hung up.
And once again she has spared him, this time as so many before. How easy life can be, Frankie thinks, when your mother knows so little of the world, and you are not her favorite son.
PRIMA GRASSO BUCKLEY and her mother look like sisters. They have the same hairstyle, the same slightly crooked noses rounded at the tip. They once had the same figure, but Prima's hips and backside have widened, and her thighs—well, her thighs bulge in the areas where Maddalena's are slim. She is twenty-seven years younger than her mother, but she's not embarrassed when someone calls out, "Maddalena!" and rushes toward her at the mall. It's a compliment to be mistaken for a woman so beautiful. From a distance, at least.
Maddalena, in her ivory slip, holds a crushed-velvet sleeveless dress to her chest. She lifts one of her long dancer's legs to see how it falls. Prima bought her this dress last year, for her seventy-first birthday. She's considering it for Patrick's confirmation party, along with a hat and gloves, but in the end she decides the hat and gloves, and the crushed velvet itself, are old fashioned. She doesn't want to dress classic, like Sophia Loren, like people expect her to. She wants to dress "in." That's her word. So she ends up choosing a knee-length black-and-white number Prima found her at King of Prussia, one that's sure to knock everybody out.
All Maddalena's clothes she gets as gifts from Prima. Birthday, Mother's Day, Christmas, even Easter. Her favorite thing in life, she says, is for Prima to take her to Christiana Mall and for them to window-shop for a while, stop for a bite to eat at the sit-down restaurant, get their nails done if they have a coupon. Maddalena does have a few friends her own age, Italian ladies who came over after the war, but their idea of a good time is to sit at kitchen tables and gossip and show off vegetables from their gardens and tell each other how old they're getting. They're round and fat, these Italian ladies; Maddalena calls them le patate, the potatoes. They prefer terry cloth housecoats to sleeveless velvet; they don't color their hair or pluck their moles or learn to drive. Maddalena has never enjoyed cooking, never planted a garden, and never left the house without makeup. She's worked in factories and drapery shops. It is one of Prima's many promises to help her mother stay young, to keep her from what they call la vita patata.
The surprise Prima's planned for the confirmation party fulfills that promise. Prima is such a junkie for surprises that even this one, which will make her mother furious, gives her a buzz. The juggling of information, the giddy expectation of her sons' hands thrown in the air, of her father's happy tears and fierce embrace, thrill her. It's the stuff of life! It will take willpower to keep the surprise to herself for three more days. When she reveals it, her mother will put up a big fuss before Prima can even get all the details out, but eventually she will come around. Prima has studied her mother's patterns all her life, talks to her many times a day, knows her better than she knows herself. They are bound both by that sacred covenant between every mother and daughter and by a cord of grief. The grief is like a living thing, silent but always present; they stand guard over it the way they would a child of their own, which, in a way, it is. It comforts Prima that the surprise is something Tony would have loved.
"Frankie should be at the party," Maddalena says. "You need to call him. He listens to you."
"He tells me he had some speech to do at the Harvard, but he made it up. I can tell. Not once he mentioned it this week. He forgets to cover up when he lies."
Prima has never understood her youngest brother, and not only because he was born so late, when she was already a teenager. He's had dark curtains over his heart from the beginning and rarely gives anyone a peek behind them, least of all his sister. Unlike her and Tony, who were born two years apart and had dozens of other friends their age around them, Frankie was a loner as a kid, never played sports, never even broke curfew on the weekends. The night of his senior prom, Prima found him sitting at home in bed, still in his school uniform, reading a book of Polish poetry. Prima sat next to him and acted Big Sister as best she could, asked if he wanted to go out for pizza. But Frankie just kept reading. When Prima finally asked if he was OK, he said, "Of course I'm OK. Why wouldn't I be OK?" and read her a poem out loud from the book.
"Aren't your exams over by now?" Prima asked, which really meant, What's a healthy red-blooded Italian American boy doing at home reading Polish poems on prom night? His solitary existence worried her. She was, and still is, looking for any sign of trouble. But again Frankie ignored her, so she stood, kissed him on the forehead, and let him be.
Excerpted from All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani. Copyright © 2013 by Christopher Castellani. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
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What People are Saying About This
—Stacey d’Erasmo, author of The Sky Below
“I loved this book for both its wit and its compassion. Chris Castellani has a steady, sustained belief in the goodness of the human spirit. to be able to convey both comedy and tragedy in a single novel is a remarkable gift.”
—Anita Shreve, author of Rescue
Meet the Author
Christopher Castellani has published two previous novels with Algonquin—A Kiss from Maddalena, which won the Massachusetts Books Award for Fiction; and The Saint of Lost Things. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he is the artistic director of Grub Street, the Boston-based non-profit creative writing center. Author website: www.christopher castellani.com
- Arlington, Massachusetts
- Date of Birth:
- December 7, 1972
- Place of Birth:
- Wilmington, Delaware
- B.A., Swarthmore College, 1994; M.A./A.B.D., Tufts University, 1998; M.A., Boston University, 1999
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