Antonia and Her Daughters: Secrets, Love, Friendship and Family in Tuscany

Antonia and Her Daughters: Secrets, Love, Friendship and Family in Tuscany

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by Marlena de Blasi

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The next volume of memoir from the author of the international bestseller A Thousand Days in Venice introduces the extraordinary Antonia, imperious matriach of four generations of strong-willed Tuscan women The renovations to 34 via del Duomo now complete, Marlena de Blasi, the bestselling international author and "the woman with the fairy-tale life" needs to find…  See more details below


The next volume of memoir from the author of the international bestseller A Thousand Days in Venice introduces the extraordinary Antonia, imperious matriach of four generations of strong-willed Tuscan women The renovations to 34 via del Duomo now complete, Marlena de Blasi, the bestselling international author and "the woman with the fairy-tale life" needs to find time and space to finish a book. Lured by the offer of a simple stone cottage in the remote, mountainous region of western Tuscany, distant from the distractions of her everyday life with Fernando in Orvieto, she sets off for some much-needed solitude. But her plans to live simply, in peace and quiet, are overturned when she meets the imperious, tempestuous Antonia, the still-stunning, elderly matriarch of a large, complicated family of four generations of beautiful blue-eyed Italian women, all with stories and ideas of their own. Antonia dislikes tourists and outsiders, and so Marlena at first spars and clashes with her, before they reach an understanding. Over feasts and family dinners, walking in the dark before sunrise to harvest wild lettuces, preparing meals and exchanging recipes, the two women joust, joke, exchange confidences, and grow closer and closer until finally Antonia reveals the terrible secrets behind the vivid beauty of Il Castelleto. Evocative, powerful, and haunting, this is a compelling insight into Italy's recent past and a revealing glimpse into one extraordinary woman's story and her kitchen.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An irresistible grown-up love story."  —USA Today on A Thousand Days in Venice

"The great Marlena de Blasi writes fairy tales for grown-ups."  —Adriana Trigiani, author, Big Stone Gap

"De Blasi’s liquid prose will draw readers into this testament to love, loss, friendship, and, ultimately survival." — Booklist

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Antonia and Her Daughters

By Marlena de Blasi

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2012 Marlena de Blasi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-525-9



I am on deadline for a manuscript. Besmirching a pact sworn, me to myself, about how I would conduct my writing life, I am fiddling with my own boundaries. Allowing distractions. Perhaps inviting them. These take two forms: the first is Emily, my dearest, oldest friend from America, who came to stay a week nearly two months ago; the second is a three-man squad at work on the daily labour of repairing what has turned out to be a less than masterful restoration of the six-metre-high vault in our salone.

At first light Emily creaks up the stairs from her room to ours, brushes her long red nails across the wooden door. I open it to her sheepish grin and am reminded of my daughter when she was four and five and maybe six, when she would enter my room across the three-foot corridor from hers in the deepest night. Mom, I thought you might be lonely.

Emily stands in the doorway, my boots in her hands. 'Will you walk with me?'

It's mostly she who talks. 'I like myself better in Italy. I forget what he's done. I forget to care. I forget to care why he did it and what he thinks. What he thinks of me. Of her. Of anything. Here it's like, out of the box and into the light. Oh, I'll go back to him eventually. Not that I can forgive him, but I will go back. I'd never have the courage to, you know, to, to ... to do what you did. I mean, what if it didn't work out? What would I do?'

'If what didn't work out?'

'If starting over without him didn't work out.'

'But life with him isn't working out. You've already discovered that. And yet you'll go back. What will you do? Pretend? Mount some clever vendetta against him? Cry me a river. I cried a river over you.'

'That would be nice.'

'You know it wouldn't.'

'No. No, not so nice, I suppose. What I really want is to meet someone else. I'd like my own Fernando. Someone to sweep me away, to court me, to make me feel fresh and young, desirable.'

'Is that the whole of what you believe happened to me?' I ask her. I place my hands on her shoulders, shake her. 'Look at me, Emmy. All those things were and are true. But they compose only a part of the story. And maybe not even the best part of the story. In fact, not at all the best part of —'

'I know, I know, you've told me that already and I understand it, but still, you make it look so easy. You and Fernando seem so perfect together, I mean the way he looks at you, always touching you, you smiling up at him as though you'd been married an hour ago ... and then you write and cook and you, you live in a ballroom. You've made it so beautiful and warm and everyone loves to be here ... and ...'

'Emmy, Emmy, stop it. Stop measuring and comparing. Stop coveting. One thing at a time. If you return to that life, all that sent you scurrying here will be waiting for you. There'll be work to do. And I don't mean just for him. But knowing you as I do and knowing him as I do, I think the best you'll achieve is a kind of détente. Will that be enough for you? A pleasant life. And should you both convince yourselves it would suffice, it will all be blown to hell with the first bold gust. And there are always bold gusts, Em, don't forget that. Reconciliation is overrated. By the time the tears dry and the promises are sworn, what caused the rupture is already pulling at the seams again. It's a quixotic dream, the one about resuming a life that once was painful but then becomes less so.'

We sit on the top step of the duomo, alone in the piazza save for the street cleaner who swings an old straw witch's broom over the stones, and the widow Pasqualetti, wrapped in shawls and trotting at some speed on her way home from feeding the cats down on the cava. Two ghosts, black against the reddening sky.

'So I'll try a different dream, the one where I come to live in Italy. After all, living here, just going out to buy a sack of tomatoes becomes a foray into another world ... and then I'd find the right man and —'

'And in no time you'll have learned the Italian wife's lament: sono tutti egocentrici, grandi mammoni — they're all egocentrics, all attached to their mothers. Won't you be expecting too much of geography? And of the next man. Not to speak of the poor sack of tomatoes ... Better, I think, to begin at home. At home signifying you, yourself. Better to begin with yourself. To step up to the bat, naked, if you will. Do your own work first, Em.'

'I don't know if I want to. Besides, don't you always say No one changes; we're all eternally ourselves?'

'I do. But we can grow, we can work at plumping up our merits, try to reassign defects to a lesser position. But character is intrinsic. Fixed like the colour of our eyes.'

'A fearsome thought. We are who we are. Like Popeye. I am what I am, I'm a sailor man. Jesus, is that what you truly believe? We can't go back. We can't change. What's left?'

'In your case it seems you've two choices: to accept — him and yourself just as you are — and bite the bullet; to not accept and get to work.'

'And you? Have you "done your work"?'

'I was more fortunate than you. I began when I was young. I was very old when I was young. I learned to trust myself, to make friends with destiny. To ask more of myself than anyone else. And I've always felt rich, somehow. Even when I didn't have a dime. Mostly then. Sometimes I would feel almost embarrassed about all I had. All that I felt inside. I suppose that's why I began to write. Anyway, I'm younger now. To answer your question, yes, I've done my work. I'm still at it.'

Emily shakes her head, says, 'I'm too tired to put myself through all that introspection. I can't imagine I'd like much of what I'd find. I'd rather just plunk along and see what happens.'

She turns her back to lean against me. We stay quiet, the scraping of the broom like a metronome. She shifts to look at me then. Her voice thin as an old silver spoon, she raises a phantom glass, her face broken by a sob. 'Eat, drink and remarry.'

* * *

In the evenings when the fire is low, Emily says, like a child to a mother, Don't leave me, and so I don't. She needs the solace of the table, of good red wine and bread still warm from the oven. For the first weeks of her visit she'd barely left her bed save to eat and drink, and even now she wanders snuffling into the kitchen, lifts pot lids, opens oven doors, fondles wine bottles set out to warm for lunch, pushes out a half-choked thank you as though I'd gifted her a pulsing kidney. Can I do less than cook for her? And while I am doing so for her, why not the trio of plasterers? While washing up from these daily festivals I grind my teeth, recalling so many books I've read with front or back pages entitled acknowledgements, treacly thanks to this or that foundation for the two years of blissful serenity in which I wrote this book. Others name a herd of sixty-one researchers, readers, middle-of-the-night affirmers of faith, general cheerers-on during the eight years and endless drafts of this book. As usual, my publisher has granted me a year from contract to completion. I work alone in a tiny red room over a supermarket and a restaurant where the daily norm includes the arrival of forty revolving Americans under the care of a certain local tour guide who come to lunch, to drink prodigious quantities of less than honourable wine and, finally, to huddle, guffawing, under my window until said tour guide — reinvigorated, if late, after a bowl of pastasciutta with his mother and a brief appuntamento galante with his lover — arrives to fetch the forty back to the autobus.

I have never had a reader or a number I could call for affirmation in the middle of the night. It is my own fault that I have assigned the status of jobette to my work — an hour now and then as succour between crises. Basta. I need a few months alone in a garret in the seventh. A garret without a stove. Or in a cabin on a seacliff without a stove. A hollow chestnut tree. Almost any place at all without a stove. Unconvinced of the likelihood that one of these will present itself, I consider alternatives, but there are none. And then I think of Neddo. I could set up at his place in Canonica. A long-time widower with grown sons, his old farmhouse has more rooms abandoned than lived in. A superlative cook, jealous of his kitchen and his methods, Neddo will be my saviour.

'Of course you can, amore mio,' he answers, though I have yet to put forth much more than sketches of the plan.

'It would only be for a few months. Five, maybe six days a week. From about six in the morning until the late afternoon. I wouldn't be working straight through, of course. Maybe we could walk together for an hour or so, or I could rest by the fire if you're —'

'Yes, yes, yes. Yes to everything. Start today. Biagio's here, by the way, arrived last night, brought some birds to hang and two kili of Garfagnano cornmeal. Wine, too, some of that fancy de Gaspari red, and he was just asking me whether Fernando would come to play cards this afternoon. Dio buono, when he hears the news about you, he might never leave. Imagine the lunches and ...'

'Fantastico, Neddo,' I lie through my teeth. 'Glorioso. Biagino. Card games. Garfagnano cornmeal and putrid birds. It will be perfect.'

Once Neddo tells him of my call, little Biagio has another idea. It is he who comes to visit later that same day and announces that what I need more than a room at Neddo's is the greater tranquillity of his place. Not the place where he lives with his wife at Castelletto but a one-room stone sanctum in a nearby pine wood where he stays when he hunts.

'A four-metre hearth and two cords of aged oak, a bed, a chair, a table. Pots and pans. A demijohn of red, one of oil. Less than four kilometres to the village. I go down at seven to take the bread for Antonia and I'll take it for you, too. Due alimentari, un forno, un macellaio, un norcino, un bar, due trattorie, un antiquario, una parrucchiera — two groceries, a bakery, a butcher, a pork butcher, a bar, two trattorie, an antiques seller, a hairdresser. And there's a small market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Porchetta, formaggi, verdure: wood-roasted pig, cheeses, vegetables. You'll be fine. We'll award Fernando visiting rights on weekends.'

* * *

'What-do-you-think? It-would-be-just-until-I-can-finish-the-manuscript-two-months-maybe -three-I-would-get-so-much-done-no-noise-no-Emily-no-stove ...'

I am trying to get the story out before he begins to pull it apart, begins to make me feel selfish, foolish. A prima donna. Always more honed are his devices. You say a real cook can cook in a tin can, so what about a writer? If you're a writer you can write anywhere, under any circumstances. Wouldn't that be true? If you were a writer.

We are alone on the terrace at Foresi and, though it's not quite eight, one of the sons makes polite moves towards closing. Even so, Fernando lights a fresh cigarette, inhales through his nose, his usual preamble to offence. The match's flame still burning he says, 'Emily is leaving on the weekend. I spoke with her this morning. She is ready to, to resume her life. I said very little.' He blows out the match.

'You had no right to say anything.'

'I believe I did. And she does as well. She thanked me.'

I want to shake him. 'Emily's going away doesn't solve my problem ...'

'Your problem is that you are adept at creating excuses for not writing. It's been the case since we moved into 34. And for longer than that.'

Now I want to turn over the table, smash the cigarette against his slightly too large aquiline nose. I wonder if he's right. So what if he's right.

'I won't operate any longer as though writing were an amusement, some sort of dilettantish way to fill the time while the bread is rising or the spaces between espressi and passeggiate. It's my work. No, that's wrong. It's a kind of hunger. A greediness. I can't not write. And beyond that, it's what we have, all we have to keep us.' We have walked the few metres back to 34 and are climbing the stairs. 'Rethink your precocious and empty-handed retirement, why don't you? Why not consider knocking on the door of some bank with your twenty-six years of history. I think a man — a relatively young and very able man — without work is a dangerous one and, furthermore, I —'

'You mystify me. Not only do you want to set up in some hermitage in the mountains but now you want me to leave my retirement and ... are you truly suggesting I should work?'

'I suspected this solution would offend your delicate Venetian sensibilities, my love, but, yes, I am suggesting that you work. If your days have a structure, so can mine. As things are now, writing time is made of crumbs. Of whatever is left over. Besides, who knows if the books can continue to sufficiently provide —'

'Sufficiently provide for you — to fund wanderlust and trunkloads of fabric ... month-long stays in Paris ... 110,000 lire last month at Emilio's just for cheese ...'

We're inside the ballroom now, sitting side by side on the sofa, all the better not to look one another in the eye. I say, 'You will recall that you, too, are fond of cheese, that we stay months at a time in Paris together and that the very napkin with which you pat your beautiful mouth was stitched from one of those metres of fabric, as were your sheets and —'

'As was that ridiculous dress you're wearing ...'

'Ridiculous? How is it suddenly ridiculous? It's not so different from any other of my dresses.'

'Maybe it's not the dress. The dress itself is ... it suits you. But not with those boots. It's the boots which are ridiculous. I prefer it when you wear sandals. How many pairs of sandals do you have with all those straps and ribbons?'

'I wear the boots for comfort during the four or five or more kilometres we walk over the cobblestones of this town each day, let alone those we walk in the hills.'

'Then wear gym shoes like other American women do.'

'I have never worn gym shoes. I wore pink ballet slippers with elastic bands across my instep even when I played field hockey at school.'

'You never played field hockey anywhere.'

'I did. Twice. I borrowed a stick and a puck and practised shushing about alone in the bathroom. I decided it wasn't a game for me. In any case, I shall never wear gym shoes — it's a matter of psychological comfort. I feel like a duck in gym shoes.'

'You look like a partisan in your boots.'

'I prefer partisan to duck.'

'I said partisan, not partridge.'

I get up to pace the room. Over my shoulder I say, 'I heard very well what you said and I still prefer partisan to duck. It's one thing to take on the responsibility of keeping us — that I have done, would continue to do as best I can for all time — but when you add your requirements for more attention, when you resent the hours, count them, pace like a randy beast before the door to the studio, when you are irritated if I stop to speak to a reader or ... It's as though you'd have me be an anonymous failure who somehow manages to earn splendid sums of money. You are essentially phlegmatic and you want me to be phlegmatic with you, as long as, sometime in the middle of the night and without insinuating upon our collective phlegmaticism, I shall continue to write books that sell. None of that is fair, Fernando. You've demanded that I be accountable and that makes me feel throttled. Yes, that's it. I feel throttled.'

'What does it mean, trott-led?'

'Jesus. Never mind. It only means that I'm tired.'

'Trott-led. I have never heard this word for tired.'

Suddenly the absurdity of our warring smashes through whatever anger I felt and I look at him for the first time. I see his perplexity. We have been speaking in English, a rare occurrence between us, inserting an Italian word only every now and then. I know how it feels to try to be understood in a language that is not one's own. I also know that every time one of us misplaces his humility, it's a signal for the other one to take aim.

I smile at him, move closer to him. 'That's not what it means at all. I can't explain right now what it means.'

Pulling me closer yet, pushing my head under his chin, very softly he says, 'Because you are too tired? Or because I am phlegmatic? I don't understand you.'

'Nor I you. That's the beauty of it, isn't it? At least we have two languages to blame. For our not understanding each other. I feel sad for couples who must manage without such a convenient rationale.'

The balcony doors are open to the April night and he goes to stand there. Can it be by accident that he stands in the single shaft of gold light gleaming from the lantern on the wall below in the vicolo Signorelli? He grips the iron railing in both hands, tilts his chin upward. A brooding Shylock ploughing the seas. I move closer to him, stop just inside the doors.


Excerpted from Antonia and Her Daughters by Marlena de Blasi. Copyright © 2012 Marlena de Blasi. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Marlena de Blasi is the bestselling author of That Summer in Sicily, A Thousand Days in Venice, Tuscan Secrets, An Umbrian Love Story, and a novel, Amandine. She has been a chef, a journalist, a food and wine consultant, and a restaurant critic. She is also the author of two internationally published cookbooks of Italian food.

Brief Biography

Orvieto, a hilltown in Umbria
Place of Birth:
Schenectady, New York
B.A., State University of New York at Albany; graduate studies in political science, New York University

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Antonia and Her Daughters: Secrets, Love, Friendship and Family in Tuscany 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
book-a-holicGK More than 1 year ago
Having read four of de Blasi's previous works on Tuscany, I eagerly jumped on this book. Her writing is always lush with descriptions of the countryside, the people, the culture. When she talks about food and cooking, you just salivate (recipes are always included). Antonia and Her Daughters includes this stuff but the bulk of the book is about Antonia. It was a disappointment and doesn't come close to her others. The story drags on and many times, I almost quit reading but I continued as I wanted to see what happened and how the book would end. Much of what is written is repetitious concerning Tuscany, the food, etc., so there's much padding (filler).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another beautifully written gem.