The Blind Contessa's New Machine: A Novel

( 13 )

Overview

Carolina Fantoni, a young contessa in nineteenth-century Italy, is going blind. But nobody believes her: neither her parents, nor her fiancé, the town’s most sought-after bachelor. Only her friend Turri, the eccentric local inventor, understands. But as darkness erases her world, Carolina discovers one place she can still see—in her dreams. In them, she can not only see, but fly, exploring new worlds in her own mind.

Losing her sight isolates Carolina. Even writing letters with ...

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The Blind Contessa's New Machine: A Novel

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Overview

Carolina Fantoni, a young contessa in nineteenth-century Italy, is going blind. But nobody believes her: neither her parents, nor her fiancé, the town’s most sought-after bachelor. Only her friend Turri, the eccentric local inventor, understands. But as darkness erases her world, Carolina discovers one place she can still see—in her dreams. In them, she can not only see, but fly, exploring new worlds in her own mind.

Losing her sight isolates Carolina. Even writing letters with pen and ink proves almost impossible—until Turri invents a new machine: the world’s first typewriter. His gift ignites a passionate love affair that will mark both of their lives forever.

Based on the true story of the blind woman who inspired the invention of the typewriter, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is an iridescent jewel of a novel that celebrates the triumph of the imagination and proves that love is the mother of invention.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781441881342
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 7/8/2010
  • Format: MP3 on CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 1 MP3-CD, 5 hrs. 59 min.
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Carey Wallace grew up in small towns in Michigan. She has worked as a waitress, private biographer, and lady’s maid to an automotive heiress. The founder of The Hillbilly Underground — a retreat that draws international artists to rural Michigan — she lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is her first novel.
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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Darkness is closing in on Carolina Fantoni. Slowly, the young contessa's vision blurs, distorts, and fades. When she tries to warn her parents and fiancé, they dismiss her fears. But Turri, her eccentric neighbor and friend, understands the truth—she is going blind. When Carolina's sight vanishes forever, he creates an ingenious machine so that she can communicate with him: the world's first typewriter. His gift is the inspiration for Carey Wallace's beautifully crafted debut novel, The Blind Contessa's New Machine, a story of invention and romance set against a lush dreamscape in nineteenth-century Italy.

In fluid, lyrical prose, Wallace details the advance of Carolina's blindness and of her growing friendship with Turri. Ten years her senior, Turri could not be more different than her husband, Pietro. Turri is reclusive, brilliant, and strange. Pietro is expansive, popular, and spoiled. Both of them struggle to help Carolina as her world is swallowed up in darkness. But Carolina finds the most comfort in the one place she can still see: her dreams, where she finds a freedom she never experienced even before her sight was snuffed out.

When Carolina's sight leaves her, her friendship with Turri is threatened. She can no longer easily reach the lake house where they've always met. Longing to communicate with her, Turri invents the world's first typewriter. Carolina's gratitude ignites a passionate affair—but the evidence the machine creates may ruin them both.

Based on the true story of the invention of the typewriter, the novel delicately traces the romantic complexities of Carolina's story, and explores invention of all kinds: not just the new machine, but dreams, lies, and imagination. Wallace deftly weaves together the intricacies of plot and imagery, language and emotion, brilliantly conveying her characters' desire for each other and the terror and sensuality of Carolina's world. An exquisite jewel of a novel, The Blind Contessa's New Machine negotiates a line between history and fairy tale, and is equal parts dream, passion, and genius.

ABOUT CAREY WALLACE

Carey Wallace was raised in small towns in Michigan. She has worked as a waitress, private biographer, and lady's maid. She is the founder of The Hillbilly Underground, an artists' retreat in rural Michigan. She currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. This is her first novel.
 

A CONVERSATION WITH CAREY WALLACE

Q. You begin the book with a quotation from a poem by Wendell Berry. What drew you to this quote? How does it reflect the spirit of the novel?

To me, Wendell Berry's lines mirror the story of The Blind Contessa's New Machine. We can think of the blind bird in two ways, he says, either as a trapped creature whose feet are "netted with darkness" or as a creature whose blindness has set her free to fly infinite distances ("her heart's distance," or anything she desires, and "the distance in her eyes" which is now infinite, because she is blind). Like the blind bird, Carolina's suffering eventually leads her out into a new freedom. I also love the element of hope built into the beginning of the quote with the words "until morning comes." The darkness in Berry's poem isn't permanent. In fact, the coming of new light is the first fact we hear, before blindness is even mentioned, and that hope should inflect everything that comes after it.

Q. The Blind Contessa's New Machine is based on a somewhat arcane piece of history. When did you first discover the story? How much of the novel is taken from life?

I discovered the historical kernel of The Blind Contessa's New Machine while researching the invention of carbon paper to make sure that it wasn't an anachronism in another story I was writing. Since there were no typewriter ribbons available when Turri invented his machine, he invented the earliest carbon paper, covered with ash, at the same time, and has credit for that invention as well. From there, I stumbled onto the story of the invention of the typewriter itself. The basic details are all true: Pellegrino Turri did invent the world's first typewriter for Carolina Fantoni in 1808. (In fact, many early typewriters were conceived of as writing aids for the blind). The two of them did carry on a correspondence while married to other people. The machine was returned to Turri's family on Carolina's death. At the time, however, nobody knew that his invention was the first example of a machine that would someday be a fixture on desks around the world, and the machine itself does not survive—only a handful of the original letters Carolina wrote on it.

Q. When writing a novel, is it helpful or challenging to have the story grounded in historical fact? Do you feel an obligation to the actual people involved?

It's wonderful to work with a true historical event in the same way that it's wonderful to work with a poetic form like a haiku or sonnet: you've got a structure to work in, certain landmarks along the way, instead of just wandering in the wilderness. I did think long and hard about honoring the real Carolina and Turri, though, especially since the very limited historical record isn't clear on whether they were ever more than friends, and I didn't want to accuse them of unfaithfulness to their own spouses, who they might genuinely have loved and to whom they might have been loyal. In the end, I decided that readers were sophisticated enough to recognize that this is a story that is more fairy-tale than history, that Carolina herself would probably be delighted to explore the world I'd built for her, and that Turri might be happy to get the added credit for his invention.

Q. Do obstacles make love more enduring or passionate? Has that been true in your own life?

Love is a mystery and it looks different for every person. In general, my feeling is that life is hard all by itself, and that there's no need to go looking for trouble in our relationships: they should be a place where we find comfort and rest. That said, I've never seen a good relationship that wasn't hard-won on some level.

Q. Many people believe that blindness heightens other senses; Carolina's love of music supports this. In some ways, do you think Carolina has a more rich experience of the world than if she hadn't lost her sight?

Carolina absolutely has a richer experience as a blind woman than she would have had sighted. Her blindness forces her to develop a rich imaginative world, and eventually she learns to exert a control there that she could never hope to have in her society. The crisis her blindness creates in the story also forces a degree of honesty in her marriage at which she and Pietro might never have arrived otherwise. Whether that's a cause for hope or not is an open question.

Q. Not only is Turri's writing machine useful but it underscores the romantic value of a letter. Do you think that the love letter is a dying art?

People seem to worry a lot about dying arts, but what I see is a lot of new invention. We may not see as many pen and ink missives as we used to, but now we can send a message to a loved one in another country with a click of a button, and pass notes from one end of the city to another by text. Something's lost and something's gained. What remains is both love itself and the deep human desire to learn by hearing stories, and I don't believe either of those has changed much, or will ever change.

Q. Do you have any special interest in typewriters?

I have never been able to leave a typewriter behind at a Salvation Army or a tag sale, a fact which my brother used to remind me of bitterly every time he helped me move, as he carried the heavy machines back and forth. While I wouldn't call myself a seasoned collector, I do have a beautiful Smith Corona with green racing stripes, a sleek Olivetti in a turquoise case, and one of the standard Royal desktop monsters that must weigh forty pounds, among others. When my brother found out this book was being published, all was forgiven: he actually decided to add to the collection with a typewriter-shaped music box that plays the alphabet, in celebration.

Q. It could be argued that writers are a type of inventor. Do you feel you have anything in common with Turri?

I'm something of a detective when it comes to the creative process, always picking up clues about how other people do it, and I'm amazed by how universal the experience is, whether you're writing a book or inventing the sewing machine (which Singer did in a dream). What's most interesting to me is the fact that it doesn't seem to be about hard work, but about listening to something being broadcast from a station that only we can receive. Of course, since both the world and our own minds are full of noise, listening for that station is in some ways the hardest work of all.

Q. Most writers encounter some sort of creative frustration during the course of writing a novel. Did this happen to you? How did you handle it?

Believe it or not, the original draft of The Blind Contessa's New Machine was about seventy pages shorter than the final version. It began as Carolina's sight began to leave her, and her blindness shadowed the entire draft. But that manuscript fell into the vast no-man's land between a short story and the modern idea of a novel, and while some people liked it, no one would publish it. I always like to think about writing as a mining operation, and I didn't know if I had any more of the story in me. But I decided to climb back down one more time and take a look around. What I discovered was the entire section dealing with Carolina's childhood, which adds a visual richness to the book, and also gives more emotional weight to her relationship with Turri and her eventual loss of sight.

Q. Do you have any authors whose work you turn to when seeking inspiration?

Penelope Fitzgerald is my favorite modern author. She began writing fiction to entertain her dying husband when she was already over sixty, and won a Booker Prize fewer than five years later. Her books are slim, intelligent, beautiful, and so strong you can get drunk on the first sip. She's got a sharp eye, but a generous heart—a rare combination. And she can set her novels convincingly in Russia, Italy, or on the Thames. Julio Cortáazar is the writer I name most often as my favorite: even in translation, his writing breaks into some category beyond prose, and his books work more like dreams than stories. I love Hawthorne best among American authors, followed by Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tennessee Williams, along with a deep affection for Cornell Woolrich, whose hypnotic prose I sometimes think works not in spite of but because of its imperfections. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are always the cornerstones of anything I've managed to learn about books, balanced on the side of wonder by Borges and Marquez. A portrait of the Brontë sisters, with their brother Branwell painted out, has hung over my desk since I was a teenager. I've read both Gone With the Wind and The Count of Monte Cristo many times. I read Thomas Merton almost daily. And Flannery O'Connor helps me in a host of ways, not least of which is her sheer cussedness.

Q. You founded The Hillbilly Underground, an artists' retreat in Michigan. Can you tell your readers more about it?

My brother and I started the Hillbilly Underground to encourage people we knew who had talent to use it. Every summer, we invite a group of artists out to our grandfather's cottage, and promise to feed them and put them up for the week. The cost of entry: they have to work on a creative project. My brother sets up a recording studio in the garage, I go to work in the bedroom, painters set up easels under the trees at the top of the hill, filmmakers take footage on the lake from the rowboat, and every night I make a big dinner, after which everyone plays poker until well into the night. Over the years, we've hosted some reasonably important artists, but most important, we've seen a lot of new work get done, including The Blind Contessa's New Machine, which I started there in July 2007.

Q. What are you working on now?

I've got a few ideas I'm kicking around, one about a ghost, and one about an outlaw.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Reread the first two pages of the novel. As Carolina confesses her fear of blindness to her parents and Pietro, how do their responses provide clues to their behavior later in the book?
  • Carolina finds a freedom in her dreams that she cannot achieve in her waking life. What do her dreams reveal about her? Do you believe dreams are significant or even symbolic? What do your dreams reveal about you?
  • What was in Turri's last letter? Why didn't Carolina open it? What would you have done in her place?
  • What physical challenges, if any, have you overcome? How did these experiences change your character?
  • Does Pietro love Carolina? How do you define love?
  • Are Carolina and Turri good for each other? How does he help Carolina? How does he hurt her? How does she hurt and help him?
  • Is there anyone in your life (friend, family member, lover) who you feel truly understands you?
  • When Liza reads to Carolina, she often elaborates on and lies about what is in the books; Carolina knows this and does not reprimand her. Why does Liza invent these stories? Why does Carolina allow her behavior to continue? What do each of them get from their relationship?
  • Why is the lake so meaningful to Carolina? What does that space provide her? Do you have any place or space that feels sacred or special to you?
  • Were you surprised by the ending of the book? Why do you think Antonio reacts the way he does?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 13 )
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  • Posted August 17, 2010

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    The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace

    I loved this book and hated it all at the same time. It is a beautiful confession written in such a way that that you feel as if you are watching the whole story through a snow globe. That distance combined with Wallace's wonderful way with words give this slim volume the enchantment of a fairy tale. There is a surreal feel to the characters that could only exist in such story, at once beloved but unattainable. The Blind Contessa's New Machine is the story of a young woman who is going blind. The novel pays meticulous attention to what she can and can not see painting for the reader lavish and sometime fanciful watercolors of words as the Contessa moves about both in the waking world and that of her dreams. There is only one soul who seems to understand her - his is a long time friend and fellow dreamer a few years her senior. They both seem to have an easy acceptance of the others eccentricities, and would seem a match except that he is married and she is about to be. I finished this novel with a notebook full of quotes that had to added to my collection and a general dissatisfy feeling as I wanted this to be the fairy tale I'd felt it was in my mind and instead I got the mundane world ending that I suppose was enviable. I am far too much a romantic dreamer myself to be able to easily reconcile this things in my mind. I believe the author herself provided a quote that captures a bit of the feeling I had when I turned the last page.

    "She found herself wishing for the Pietro her heart had constructed over the previous years: sure-footed, understanding, and fearless, to come rescue her from Pietro himself as he rambled on at her side. The wish made her dizzy." P 47

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2012

    The story is so original--and even magical in its heavy use of s

    The story is so original--and even magical in its heavy use of scenery and emotion to convey how imagination can trump reality--that I was very disappointed in the ending. That's the reason I can't rate it 5 stars; the ending was abrupt and the epilogue didn't compensate for that flaw as it should have. Regardless, I really enjoyed living in Carolina's world while reading the story, and the author must be skilled when a reader can easily and happily transport him/herself into the novel. So, I highly recommend this book. It's an original read, despite an unsatisfying ending.

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  • Posted August 29, 2010

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    I Also Recommend:

    Quintessential prose floats over the world of the sightless

    Carolina, a newly engaged woman surrounded by the beauty of a 19th century Italian villa, revels in her daydreams until she realizes she is going blind. Her family worries if their villa's shady garden can sustain a grove of lemon trees while Carolina observes rather than fears her encroaching blindness.

    Ironically, Carey Wallace's evocative prose is awash with images that invite the eye to retrace many a sentence. The author then masterfully invites us into the world of the sightless with descriptions of the other senses spilling over each page. "The woods chatter." "The insect's strong body beat against her eyelids." "Sugar. She lifted her finger from her tongue." Under Wallace's pen, Carolina experiences the world so clearly, we are stunned to discover that she needs a writing machine. I need not comment about the love story in the plot as other reviewers have. Frankly, plot was quite secondary in this reader's mind to the perception of how well Carolina lived in her dark world. When her other senses do not give her enough, she wills her dreams to take her to places where she can envision what she loves.

    This extraordinary debut novel moved me with its insight and eloquence. I disagree with the review that cited blindness as being the central idea in the book. I found the novel remarkably illuminating and an absolute delight to read.

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  • Posted August 17, 2010

    Lovely, little book!

    The Blind Contessa's New Machine - What a clumsy title for a lovely little book! This is the story of Carolina Fantoni, a young contessa, adventurous and independent, who goes blind. No one of her acquaintance knows how to treat her once she goes blind so she becomes totally isolated and trapped in her own home. An intelligent and resourceful woman she learns to travel and fly in her dreams. Then a childhood friend, Turri, an eccentric inventor builds her a typewriter to help her reconnect with the world. The invention of the typewriter has unforeseen consequences and both their lives are changed.

    To begin with the plot of this book is interesting and unusual and the author makes good use of it. She explores what it must have been like to be so afflicted in a time were was no awareness of the blind and how to help them. Carolina's utter isolation and how she, and the people around her, handle it were fascinating topics to consider. However, what really makes this book is the gorgeous, poetic writing. The details are all written in with an artist's touch until I could clearly see with all my senses. Carolina's lake, in particular, feels like a real place that I could visit anytime. The dust jacket calls this "an iridescent jewel of a novel" and I couldn't agree more!

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  • Posted July 17, 2010

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    Good

    Such an interesting book - it pulls you in so that you can 'see' what Carolina sees (or later, doesn't see). No wasted words, not extensive descriptions to attempt to lengthen the book. Just a well written and interesting story of a young lady who is going blind.

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  • Posted July 12, 2010

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    Bridget's Review

    Carolina's eyesight is growing dim. Neither her husband-to-be nor her parents acknowledge this fact, but Carolina has found a way to accept what has happened. When her sight is completely gone, she escapes the real world into a land of endless possibilities. She says goodbye to real life and enters a world where she can fly free. The only person who is truly there for Carolina is Turri. When he constructs the first typewriter, for her, they tumble into a passionate love affair.

    I fell in love with this book! Turri is the kind of guy every girl wants - one that will do anything for her because he wants to, not because it's expected of him. I would say that this book rivals The Notebook. Romance fans everywhere will happily jump into Carolina's shoes because she may not be able to see the outside world, but she can see love in a way that most people never do.

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    Posted October 13, 2010

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