Cabaret: A Roman Riddle


struggling mortician in working-class Rome, Freda only married her repulsive ventriloquist husband, Alberto, because it was prophesied that she'd do so. Now that he's vanished mysteriously along with his equally abhorrent dummy (who Freda suspects is actually a midget), she'd like them both to stay missing -- though she's devastated by the simultaneous disappearance of her soul mate, Pierino, her beloved talking parrot. While the police investigate this series of possible crimes, Freda will continue embalming by ...

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Cabaret: A Roman Riddle

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struggling mortician in working-class Rome, Freda only married her repulsive ventriloquist husband, Alberto, because it was prophesied that she'd do so. Now that he's vanished mysteriously along with his equally abhorrent dummy (who Freda suspects is actually a midget), she'd like them both to stay missing -- though she's devastated by the simultaneous disappearance of her soul mate, Pierino, her beloved talking parrot. While the police investigate this series of possible crimes, Freda will continue embalming by day, unleashing her caged passions at night in a seedy cabaret (until a tragic fire leaves the proprietor with a tuba stuck on his head), trying to make do with a talking hamster in lieu of dear Pierino . . . and recalling the vagaries of life that led her to this unfortunate juncture.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A sexually frustrated Italian mortician tries to solve the riddle of her husband's disappearance in this drolly comic oddity. Prior (Ardor) sets the stage for an intriguing mystery when Freda, 26, discovers her apartment ransacked and both her beloved parrot and despised husband missing. The hunky investigating detective awakens Freda's buried passions, but this and any further developments in the case are put on hold for the next 100-odd pages as Freda recounts what led her to her present state. The garish scenery is worth the plot detour. From her deathbed, Freda's mother prophesied her daughter's marriage to a ventriloquist, and thus when Freda meets ventriloquist Alberto on a cruise, she accepts him as her destiny (even though he's repulsive, with hands like "slabs of hot lard smeared on my skin"). In the present, Freda really wants to find her parrot, while a talking hamster tries to take its place, and a disastrous fire at a cabaret where Alberto used to perform leaves the owner with the bell of a tuba permanently stuck on his head. Prior plants many seeds of mystery that never actually sprout-like what really happened to Alberto, for instance-but light laughs and plenty of absurdity make for a diverting read. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With a preponderance of oddly named characters (e.g., Signora Drusilla Lippi, Mafalda Firpotto, and Porzio Pompi) but very little plot, this latest Italian farce from the author of La Cucina is oddly entertaining but empty. Freda Lippi, a talented young mortician, returns to her Roman apartment to discover that her fat, balding ventriloquist husband has been kidnapped. This news, while unsettling, is not nearly as upsetting to Freda as the knowledge that her beloved blue parrot, Pierino, is also missing. Having married Alberto only to fulfill her mother's deathbed request, Freda feels relieved that he's gone but compelled to find out whether he's coming back. A deadly Mediterranean cruise, a shady cabaret owner, and a hunky detective all figure in. Luscious descriptive scenes mix with absurd and deadpan humor. Is it a dream? At what point will Freda wake up in a mental hospital? What's the punch line? What's the point? Billed as a riddle, this novel is more of a muddle. Buy where Prior's previous novels were popular.-Christine Perkins, Burlington P.L., WA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More corny Italian fare from Prior pursues the mystifying disappearance of a Roman embalmer's husband. Prior (Nectar, 2002, etc.) heaps together a jumble of prosaic details and characters, then prays for a novel here. There are six pages of mostly irrelevant, melodious names in the "cast." Young Freda Lippi, nee Castro, a Roman embalmer, returns home one Saturday afternoon (laden with plucked chicken, pancetta, broad beans, etc.) to find that her ventriloquist husband of three years, Alberto, has been seized and their flat ransacked. Freda never liked Alberto, whom she met on a cruise won as a prize through Mortician's Monthly magazine, but she married him because of her mother's prophetic dying words: "I see a ventriloquist. . . ." Actually, Freda is more aggrieved at the disappearance of her parrot Pierino. In a long flashback, she recounts the last day of her mother's life, in 1965, when Freda was 16, and they all took off for a ride to the beach in Uncle Birillo's new Oldsmobile Cutlass: glamorous Mamma, a famous singer; Freda's imperious older sister, Fiamma, who was driving; and Freda. A terrible accident left Mamma embedded in a palm tree, dead; Fiamma went on to become a successful midlevel civil servant of predatory repute, and young Freda apprenticed herself to the embalmer who reconfigured her mother's ravaged face. Back in the present, Freda flirts with the attractive detective on the case of her disappeared Alberto, who performed on Saturdays at the Berenice cabaret club, where Freda gets a brief job as a hat girl. But there's only a halfhearted attempt to find out what happened to Alberto; in fact, the mystery is never satisfactorily solved. Prior is clearly more interestedin the quirky gags of her loopy Italians-dating, cooking, collecting Mamma's stolen teeth and so forth. Is this adorable-or inane? Schmaltz Romano.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615560080
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/27/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lily Prior is the author of La Cucina, Ardor, and Nectar and she divides her time between London and Italy.

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Read an Excerpt


A Roman Riddle
By Lily Prior

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Lily Prior
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060772573

Chapter One

I struggled up the stone steps clutching a plucked chicken to my chest. Squashed under my arm was the carton containing the new wig and the squeakers; my basket was laden with raspberries, red peppers, pancetta, and broad beans; and as I fumbled for my key in the string bag containing the library books, it came to my attention that my front door was cordoned off by tape. What could be going on? Was there wet paint? Nobody told me there was to be maintenance. I hesitated, and a tall man appeared in my doorway.

"Signora Lippi?"

I nodded.

"Please come inside, and try to remain calm."

He pushed the tape aside to allow me in. There was scarcely room for us both in the narrow passage. I could smell the garlic and the anchovies from his lunch on his breath. Tiny globules of sweat clung to his upper lip. In the dim light he was inhaling me, and his eyes were glued to my chicken. They were a little bloodshot, and filled with hunger. His suit was rumpled. It was clear he was a detective.

"What is it?" I asked faintly. "Is it Fiamma?" My sister was scornful of the dangers she faced, but I had long lived in dread of a moment like this one.

"It's your husband, signora," he breathed, allowing my heart to start beating again. Fiamma was safe.

"He has been taken," the Detective continued, "and your apartment has been ransacked."

"Taken?" I repeated, not understanding him.

"He has been seized. Disappeared. You know the way things are, signora; it is unlikely you will ever see him again."

Alberto seized! It hardly seemed likely. I had heard about such disappearances, of course, but why would anybody want Alberto? It had to be a mistake. If he had been taken, they would soon realize their error and release him. I had no doubt he would be back in time for his supper, and this being Saturday, he would be expecting chicken with scorched pepper sauce. As my brain raced ahead to tonight's dinner, the Detective seemed to expand and fill the passage completely. I became aware, as we faced each other, that his body was now touching mine and his breathing was slow and heavy. The appearance of a second man emerging from the parlor filled the corridor beyond capacity. I was struck by the way the second man's earlobes had continued growing down the sides of his neck until they reached almost to his shoulders.

"I've finished, sir," he said, and pointed with his head to the clear plastic bag he was carrying. "Just some items we're taking away as evidence, signora." I couldn't be sure, but I thought I could detect some items of my underwear in the bag. What could they want with those?

The man in charge grappled for some time with his hand in his pocket. It felt as though he was examining my thighs, but it was only because we were all pressed so closely together. His subordinate was in fear for his wallet, I could tell. After a delay, during which time seemed to warp and stretch, he finally fished out a card and handed it to me. Like his suit, it was crumpled and slightly damp. Although the writing was smudged, I could make out the words, "Paolo Balbini, Polizia Municipale, Roma 17," and a number at headquarters.

"It is unlikely they will try to contact you, signora," he said, "but if they do, or even if they do not, you have my number."

Finally they squeezed out past me onto the more spacious landing. The backward glances Signor Balbini threw me showed how much it hurt him to leave. I said nothing, but shut the door behind them.

My brain, and my mouth, seemed both to have dried up. It felt like a dream. Just a few minutes ago everything had been normal. It was Saturday. I had gone into work for a couple of hours--there had been a number of murders during the night, and Signora Dorotea needed my assistance in masking some bullet holes and reconstructing a nose that had been blown off in an explosion. Then I met Fiamma for coffee at Bobrini's. She had just returned from a fact-finding mission to Bolivia, and was covered in ulcers from poisoned fish served at the official banquet. She couldn't face any food, so I ate all the pasticcini myself and I have to say they were delicious. Then she was driven away by her chauffeur, Pesco, to an emergency summit at the Ministry, and I ran my errands. I returned my library books, and picked out three new ones, collected Alberto's order from the theatrical trickster's in the Corso, took my funeral suit into the dry cleaner's, and then did my shopping at the market stalls in the Campo dei Fiori.

Every Saturday was the same. Now this.

I walked through the rooms with the feeling I was acting a part in a film. Everything was in such a mess. It was as though a huge and hideous monster had swallowed my contents and regurgitated them, partially digested. It was awful, but worse was to come: when I stumbled into the parlor, I found Pierino's cage overturned and empty. Frantically I searched the ruins, but he was gone. I ran to the windows, squinting into the sunlight, to try and spot him, but there was no sign of him. Opposite, slouching in the doorway of the Belbo Forno, I identified the form of Detective Balbini. He was looking up at me, and hurriedly I slammed the shutters.


Excerpted from Cabaret by Lily Prior Copyright © 2005 by Lily Prior.
Excerpted by permission.
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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Reading Group Guide


Freda Lippi comes home one day to find her front door cordoned off by tape and her apartment full of police. A detective informs her that her husband, Alberto, has been "taken," and that her apartment has been ransacked. This news confuses Freda, but what really frightens her is that her beloved parrot, Pierino, has escaped. She seems strangely detached from the mess in her home and the disappearance of her husband, but runs through the streets frantically calling for Pierino. What has happened to Freda's husband? Why is the parrot more important to her? And who left a red rose on the pillow of her bed? With these questions, Lily Prior begins to weave the hypnotic riddle that runs through Cabaret like an enticing melody.

"I walked through the rooms with the feeling I was acting a part in a film," [Page 6] Freda tells us, and as she narrates the story of her life we learn that Freda never feels quite connected to her own life. She has married a man she despises, and in order to explain this she must reconstruct the story of her eccentric family and the shocking accident that changed her life. On Freda's sixteenth birthday her mother, a Cabaret singer, was killed in a freak car accident as her sister drove the family to spend a day at the beach. Before her mother dies in the hospital she makes a prediction for Freda, saying that she sees a ventriloquist in her future. Freda takes this to mean that she must find a ventriloquist to marry, and sets out on a quest to accomplish this. From a horrifically funny cruise to see the Pyramids of Egypt, to a sexual obsession with a detective who seems to be everywhere at once, and finally to a job as a Cabaret singer, Freda tries to solve the riddle of her own life.

With her characteristic humor and sensual prose, Lily Prior gives us a world where the boundary between dreams and reality is constantly shifting. And in this lush novel, she has created a heroine whose tragicomic quest is not only human but particularly female. Freda is driven by desires and curiosities with which any reader can identify -- she wants to be happy, she wants to have a great sex life, and she wants to express herself freely. Are her desires satisfied? Does the story have a happy ending? Is the riddle solved? Prior knows that life is ambiguous, and the end of this novel will leave readers both wondering and entertained.

Questions for Discussion

  1. After Freda returns from her run through the streets searching for Pierino, crashing into fruit stands and scooping up handfuls of crushed fruit to tempt the parrot, she returns home and takes a bath. Prior writes, "I peeled off my fruit-stained clothes and stepped into the tub, balancing the raspberries on my knees. I scooped up a handful and pressed them into my mouth with dripping fingers. They were sublime. The juice dripped down my chin and dropped into the water creating pink curlicues" [Page 14]. The language in this passage is overtly sexual, and Freda seems to be relating to her world in a highly sexual manner. Why is this? Why is she apparently so happy and aroused even though her world has just been turned upside down?

  2. Freda's first sexual encounter with the detective is quite surreal. As Prior creates the scene, it includes everything from passion to slapstick comedy. Is it a dream or is it really happening? Is it some kind of combination of the two? Do you feel that this passage is effective? Prior includes a lot of specific detail in this encounter, such as how the clothes come off, what they're made of, the downstairs neighbor, etc. What effect do these details have on the sensuality of the scene? Is it romantic?

  3. When Freda is released from the hospital after her mother's death, she and her sister go to live with Uncle Birillo and Aunt Ninfa. Prior writes, "Everything had changed so fast: it was as though our other life never even existed. I didn't even get the chance to say goodbye to anybody ... " [Page 45]. What effect does this abrupt change have on the rest of Freda's story and the choices she makes? How does it affect her relationship to her own past?

  4. Both Freda and her sister Fiamma seek to fulfill their mother's prophecies for them, though their personalities and lives are very different. Do you see any similarities between them?

  5. When Freda takes a job in a funeral home, she takes pride in her work there and seems to enjoy it. She is not squeamish, and appears to enjoy restoring some beauty or perfection to people who have died. What does this tell you about her?

  6. Whenever Freda attempts a sexual encounter, Pierino is somehow involved. His approval of her lovers is crucial to Freda. In her aborted seduction scene with Ernesto, he appears "wearing nothing but a long blond wig and brandishing a wand." At that point, as Prior writes, "This was the moment Pierino had been waiting for. He sliced across the room in a motion that was invisible it was so fast, and set upon, with his sharp beak, the tempting parts of my would-be lover" [Page 84]. Obviously the affair goes no further. What does Pierino represent to Freda? Discuss her psychological bond with the parrot and the causes and results of it.

  7. At Aunt Ninfa's urging, Freda enters a contest to win a Mediterranean cruise. Prior writes, "I had to write a sentence of no more than twelve words explaining why I deserved to win the cruise. I hemmed and hawed over this one. It was the word 'deserved' that I found particularly tricky. I didn't feel I deserved anything" [Page 87]. Why would Freda feel this way? Would you describe her feelings as "low self-esteem," or as something else? Is Prior making a comment about the conditioning of young women in society, or is this something particular to Freda?

  8. As Freda's cruise ship pulls out of harbor, and she stands on the deck watching her family, Prior writes, "I watched my loved ones retreat into the haze, feeling a huge wave of nostalgia, praying fervently that nothing horrible would happen to me while I was away in the wider world. As usual in my life, I was destined to be disappointed" [Page 96]. Prior uses irony here with a light touch, and it gives a good sense of Freda's personality. Although Freda's life is full of tragedy, she herself seems fairly optimistic. In what other ways do you see Prior using irony in this novel? Do you find that her combination of humor and tragedy conveys something accurate about life?

  9. Freda meets two important characters on her voyage. One is Alberto the ventriloquist, who allows her to fulfill what she thinks is her mother's prediction. The other is Clodia, the depressed, one-handed lesbian who falls in love with Freda. Since Freda learns something from everyone she encounters, what does she learn from Clodia? Does this extreme character allow Freda to see herself in a different light?

  10. How do you feel about the ending of the novel?

About the Author

Lily Prior is the author of La Cucina, Nectar, and Ardor. With her husband, Chris, and pug, Norman, she divides her time between London and Italy, where she finds inspiration for her novels.

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