by Ellen Cooney


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Lambrusco by Ellen Cooney

The year is 1943. The Nazis have invaded Italy; American troops have landed. At Aldo's restaurant on the Adriatic coast, Lucia Fantini entertained customers for years with her marvelous opera singing. But normal operations are over. The restaurant has been seized by nazifascisti, and a Resistance squad of waiters and local tradesmen has been formed, led by Lucia's son, Beppino. When Beppino disappears, Lucia must journey across war-devastated Italy to find him. Aided by a richly drawn cast of characters, the story of her adventures is told with the vigor, drama, and lyrical grace of an Italian opera, in a brilliantly arranged narrative that places tragic events side-by-side with high comedy, domestic intrigues, and gripping details. In this captivating story of a mother and son, Cooney enters a world of peril and chance, and brings to life the extraordinary Resistance movement of the Italian people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307280596
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/07/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

  Ellen Cooney is the author of six previous novels. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Literary Review, and Glimmer Train, among many other publications. The recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, she taught creative writing at Boston College, MIT, Harvard and the University of Maine. A lifelong resident of Massachusetts, she now lives in midcoast Maine.

Read an Excerpt

On the train the whole world was the train.

No noise from the corridor. The other passengers had settled in. The door of my compartment was closed. The conductor had already been through. I was only traveling locally, going home, but nothing was normal; every journey was complicated.

No police, no soldiers. It was almost easy to forget that if it weren’t for soldiers and police, the trains would not be running.

My papers were in order. Lucia Fantini of Mengo. Age fifty-five. Born a Sicilian. The lady with the voice at Aldo’s. Widow of Aldo, mother of Beppi.

No problems: just a couple of brief confrontations. The usual. I knew how to raise my guard graciously, so the barriers didn’t show. To make it seem I’d said yes, when saying no.

“Excuse me, Signora Fantini, it’s a great piece of luck we’ve run into you. As hurried as you are, could you pause two minutes to sing something complimentary? Tomorrow’s our wedding anniversary, ten years. My husband was with the army in Africa. He doesn’t like to talk about it, in fact he doesn’t talk at all. It’s the same as if they cut out his tongue. But look, his ears are wide open. Just one short song, something lively?”

“Signora, pardon me, one night I heard you sing at your husband’s place which became your son’s, I’m sorry the Fascists took it, the bastards. In the company of my in-laws who were paying, as I’d never afford it myself, I thought only of an expensive dinner. No one warned me that Aldo’s had singing from the operas of our country. Sitting there unaware, I was destroyed for any voice except your own, and don’t bother thanking me for a compliment. It’s a fact. May the soul of your husband rest in peace, although truthfully, one doubts that it can, if he knows what’s going on. But I trust that one day soon, your splendid restaurant will come back to your family.”

The anxiety of departure was over. No mechanical trouble, no schedule changes, no last-minute boardings, no unexplained delay.

My two shopping bags were from a fashionable dress shop in Bologna, but they were heavy; they contained two sacks of flour. There was still black market flour to be bought. Buried inside, one to each sack, were German guns—Lugers, which my son called “useful, no-fuss bang-bangs, courtesy of our invaders.”

I minded the strain of making it seem that all I carried were tissue-wrapped dresses. In my purse were sturdy little cardboard boxes from a well-known confectioner’s, as if I planned to stuff myself with candy. The boxes were packed with ammunition.

I was too hot in my good wool coat. I should have worn something lighter, but the wool had the biggest pockets, for a pair of Berettas, as simple and small as two toys. One was wrapped in my blue and orange silk scarf, an end of which streamed from the pocket elegantly, like a fashion statement. The other was covered by a pair of gloves and some balled-up handkerchiefs.

Our bank accounts were frozen. I had paid the gun-and-flour merchant with a pair of Aldo’s gold cuff links. We were running out of jewelry. I no longer wore my wedding ring, but refused to give it up.

I wore no makeup. Sweat, and the possibility of tears, would have ruined it. I hated going out of the house like this, in this particular nakedness, and I was careful to avoid all mirrors. My throat was dry, and so were my lips and mouth, but not because I was thirsty. It was stage fright, the same old symptoms. Sometimes in the spotlight at Aldo’s, I’d feel I had swallowed a handful of sand.

But here I was, doing this again, pulling it off again: a lady out shopping, oh, there’s nowhere to go to dress up for, and I shouldn’t be spending what little money I have, but it came to me this morning that I should spit in the eyes of the war and buy myself something nice—and anyway, I was fed up with how the only other women going into good shops were women of nazifascisti.

The curtain on the compartment window, tattered and grimy, had been lifted, tucked back by some other passenger. I left it that way.

The train progressed slowly past narrow country roads, wide fields, closed-up houses, trees, Nazi trucks, Nazi tanks, Nazi soldiers in casual groups, smoking cigarettes, their helmets tipped back as if they were working on suntans.

It had rained heavily the day before, but now it was dry and shiny and clear. A perfect November morning, 1943. Every few miles, a small, fluffy pillow of a cloud came into view, framed by the window like a painting.

I thought only of home. This was Aldo’s birthday, his seventy-fifth. Just because he wasn’t alive was no reason not to acknowledge it.

Three-fourths of a century. A milestone.

I’d made up my mind to be festive about it, and not to let it bother me that Beppi’s reason for sneaking to the house later on would be simply to pick up the guns. There was no electricity—it had gone off a month ago. We were nearly out of candles. There wasn’t any meat, fish, or bread.

But tonight there’d be a real meal, although the pasta wouldn’t take the form of tagliatelle, the egg-and-flour noodles Aldo had loved, like all Romagnans. There weren’t eggs.

Marcellina Galeffi, our live-in housekeeper, had already cut up leeks for soup. There were tomatoes, chestnuts, artichokes, mushrooms, a few ends of cheese, a little oil, wine, basil, rosemary, and garlic.

Marcellina would do most of the cooking. She was right now at daily Mass in the village, safe with the priest, Don Enzo. “One of the good ones,” she called him. She was crazy about him: a bookish, mild-tempered man, the same age as Beppi—they’d been at school together—but his opposite in every way.

Enzo would come for the dinner. His family, the Malfadas, were cheese people; they’d supplied the restaurant almost exclusively. Aldo, then Beppi, let Enzo eat for free whenever he wanted, which had been pretty much daily. He had a private table near the back. He used it as an extension of the little stone rectory where he lived, and the church as well.

Just yesterday he’d told Marcellina, as a matter of faith, it was reasonable to expect that, any day now, someone would stick a pin in the German Army, and also all the fascisti, plus Mussolini himself, and also Hitler. Pop-pop-pop-pop, and this nightmare would end, with four deflations, and finally his stomach would operate again at full steam.

God bless him, he’d touched Marcellina, no easy thing at her age; she was seventy-one. It was all she’d talk about: balloons, Enzo’s belly, poppings. He’d made her feel tender, even though it only lasted one second.

I imagined the dinner preparations. I pictured my smooth old wood table.

In the center, a high mound of flour, volcano-shaped. At the top of the mound, an opening, exactly where lava would erupt.

It was always like this. I was born in a house facing Etna. I’d had plenty of time for my eyes to make imprints of the smooth Romagna hills, which never moved and never would, but still, if something was available to be formed in a mound—laundry, nuts, bittersweet greens from the garden, sticks for a fire, clams from the beach we couldn’t go to anymore because of the war—my hands made that shape, sometimes pointed, and sometimes with the top leveled off. Even those fleshy spots at Aldo’s hips were this way, another lifetime ago, the little mountains he called “the places where you like to hold on to me, not that either of them is where something important could burst from, heh heh heh.”

As if that were the reason he’d grown so stout. To give me something to hold on to. He had died nearly four years ago, at home.

Not a surprise. His cousin Ugo, the only physician he’d let anywhere near him, had been saying for ages that if Aldo’s chest were the hood of a car, he’d open it up to let everyone see that the engine was cracked and decrepit; the hoses were clogged beyond repair, and the whole thing was so dysfunctional, the only place it was headed was a junk heap. That was how he had put it. “Good thing you’re not a car, Aldo.”

At the moment of his heart attack, the fourth, the one that killed him, he was sitting at the table for lunch, drawing breath to blow on his soup, a fish broth made by Marcellina. He often had his midday meal at home before leaving for the restaurant. The soup was too hot; he’d been running late.

When the bowl crashed to the floor, it took Marcellina a moment to turn around from the stove to see what had happened. She thought he’d thrown it down on purpose. She was waiting for him to shout at her.

Now every time the wind blew hard against the kitchen shutters, she announced with a sigh, “There’s Aldo again, blowing. I’ll go out and tell him to be quiet. He knows what the Blackshirts have done, but he’s got to be patient, which maybe he’ll manage in death, having failed at it in life.”

Would Marcellina find milk in the village, to be mixed with water for the dough? She had taken some black market salt to be traded. There would have to be milk. Water into flour without eggs could be done, but water without milk?

I pictured a jug of milk and a saucepan of water heating up. Lacing the water with the milk. Not letting it come to a boil. Taking the pan off the stove. Bringing it to the flour. Tipping it over the mound, dead center. Pouring slowly: an eruption in reverse.

Marcellina would step in for the rough work: bending over the table, mixing and kneading, grunting from the effort, cursing. Until the last of the dough had been cut, she’d raise her creaky old voice—huge and a little raspy—against God, the Fantini family, her lot as a servant, her age, the hills, the farms, flour itself, Mengo, all Romagna, the Adriatic coast, and all of doomed, hapless, incompetent Italy. Against Germans and Fascists, she never spoke a word in the kitchen. She believed that if she did, the food would be poisoned.

Sunlight. Flour dust. A faint smell in the air of the sea. Mushrooms by the sink, waiting to be washed, with stems in the shape of bullets. Artichokes on the counter like a hill of spiny grenades.

A party to look forward to. No one in Aldo’s chair. No one else ever sat there.

Reading Group Guide

“A writer with style and heart.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Ellen Cooney's mesmerizing new novel, Lambrusco.

1. Lambrusco is a novel taking place in wartime, yet scenes of destruction and horror are often juxtaposed with flashes of comedy and a light, almost whimsical humor. Do you find that the comic elements dramatize a way of coping with the reality of one's life and surroundings in constant peril? Is the author saying something about a basic human survival mechanism?

2. How do the elements of opera function in the course of the novel? There's a large and colorful cast, highly charged drama, intrigue, adulterous love, family love and conflict, and even the novel-equivalent of a libretto. In a practical sense, how do the songs function for the “lady with the voice at Aldo's,” Lucia Fantini?

3. The essence of Lucia's identity, and of her life, is her voice as a musical instrument, yet her relationship with her powers is complicated. Is she sympathetic for her failure to create a professional, onstage career? She is hugely important to the people of her region, and to the restaurant as well, not only in a financial way—does she see herself as something of a failure? How crucial is it to the novel that the narration is first person? How do Lucia's descriptions of her performances apply to her role with the partisans?

4. Ellen Cooney's novels are highly varied in their subjects, but there is always a center of the act of creative endeavor, not only in art, but in daily life. Lucia Fantini is an artist figure, but what about the creative powers of the partisans? How much of the boldness and courage to become resistance fighters begins within the mind and soul of each partisan?

5. At the heart of the novel is a story about a mother and son, Lucia and Beppi. When Lucia learns that Beppi went off on his own to carry out a dramatic act of resistance to the nazifascisti, she gets mad at him. She wonders what kind of a partisan he is, not telling his mother about it, and then rushing off into hiding. Do you find this reaction encapsulating the feeling of any loving mother, or do you feel it's particular to Lucia and Beppi and the war?

6. How does the novel investigate the dynamics of non-military people choosing to become involved in resistance activity? Or, feeling they don't have a choice? How much of the spirit behind the impulse to form a partisan squad is uniquely Italian? Most of the partisans do not feel political about what they're doing. What do you see as their true motivation?

7. Were you familiar before this novel with the region of what now called Emilia-Romagna? How is the sense of place put to use? Were you aware of the widespread effects of the American bombardment of the region in World War II? Which scenes of wartime devastation stayed with you most when you had finished reading the novel? Which scenes of tenderness? Which of comedy?

8. Lambrusco opens as a conventional novel but quickly becomes unpredictable. As narrator, Lucia never knows what's going to happen next, or who will turn up. Did you find that this method of narration drew you into the events so that, as reader, you were living Lucia's life alongside her?

9. What's your reaction to Annmarie Malone? What kind of a person is she? What's she doing there? How do you feel about the hospital scene with her and Lucia? How does the author create impressions of the Americans in Italy? Did you feel you were reading from an Italian point of view?

10. How does Lambrusco resemble, or not resemble, other novels of World War II in Europe?

11. How do you see Lucia's relationship with Aldo? With Ugo Fantini? What is your feeling about Beppi falling in love with a woman who is deaf?

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Lambrusco 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There isnt one thing about this novel you wont love. A strong women who will risk everuthing for her son.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Lambrusco' is the story of one woman's journey as she searches for her missing son across war torn Italy. The novel takes place during World War II and while war provides the horrific background, this is not a story about war itself, but rather about the way it affects those who are surrounded and engulfed by it. It is a story about ordinary people banded together in difficult, extraordinary times. It is about hope, the ways in which we, as individuals, affect those around us, about family, friends, and community. From the moment the book opens, with a list of the cast of characters, you know you are in for an interesting ride. Although the novel is told from Lucia's point of view, there are moments where Lucia's imagination takes over and the result is a panorama of all the things that make us human - our imaginations, fears, lusts, our love, our tenacity, and the relationships we forge and build in even the worst of circumstances. While Lucia must face devastating events, it is her hope, her voice that ultimately survives. The beginning of the novel sets up the journey Lucia must make, but it is the second half which really showcases Ms. Cooney's talent. She creates some real moments of beauty and humor, not an easy task considering the circumstances. Overall, 'Lambrusco' is a worthwhile read from a talented writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lambrusco takes place in 1943 during World War II in German occupied Italy. Italian leader Mussolini is still alive and has many fascist followers throughout Italy. Those fighting the ¿Blackshirts¿ have to watch their actions and words to avoid punishment from the Germans and their followers. Lucia Fantini is a soprano who loves to sing opera in their restaurant, music that had been written by the most famous opera composers, but mostly those that were Italian. Lucia and her husband Aldo had owned a Restaurant before the war started and, like many others, lost their businesses to the fascist¿s that took over many buildings to assist the Germans. Aldo had died before the war but Lucia can¿t get him out of her mind as well as all their children and family that were so close before wartime came to Italy. Many of the Italians worked for the underground movement fighting their enemies and performing many brave acts to assist others fighting those enemies in their own homeland. For many it was ¿hit, run, and hide¿ to avoid capture. For their families these patriots were rarely in touch with them but were always hitting the enemy where they could do the most hurt to them. When villages were hit by bombs destroying or damaging buildings to the point that they were unlivable, the people had to roam the countryside to avoid capture and/or conflict with their enemies. This story took place during a time of history that I have always been eager to learn about from all sides. This is the first book that I have read that tells the war from the Italian side during a time before the allies had liberated Italy from the German occupation. While I feel that Ellen Cooney had a great story to tell, I feel that the intertwining of family and friends made parts of the book quite hard to follow. The last portions of the book did pull many things together where the reader could finally `feel¿ the action from the authors point of view and absorb her wrap-up of the extensive family actions and reactions to the hurt they endured and had seen through their own eyes. Lucia and Aldo¿s small restaurant had been well known due to the beautiful singing of opera by Lucia. The book opens with Lucia traveling by train attempting to take weapons in disguised bags to the partisans that desperately needed them. She was also in search of her son, Beppi, who had been given credit for blowing up some German trucks. A nun approached her on that train, or so she appeared to be, only to find out that this woman was disguised as a nun and was actually an American Intelligence agent that was there to aid Lucia and actually did save her from capture. The American, Annamarie, had been a golfer in Arizona. She had married an American military officer. During the story, Annamarie was severely injured during some of the fighting. The story takes you on the travels and tells you the trials and tribulations that partisans went through while they moved from village to small cities and throughout the countryside attempting to evade Germans, fascists, and even the bombs that the American airplanes dropped. These bombs dropped on many of their villages and cities and destroyed and killed many people, friend and foe alike. While I said the book is confusing at times, the story is one that needed to be told. Anyone that knows anything about Italian families knows that many of them are large and in the authors telling of this story, she is bound to cause some confusion. Don¿t let that stop you from reading Lambrusco.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In Lambrusco 'Pantheon Books.New York: 2008', Ellen Cooney interweaves travel literature, love stories, musical drama, and a rich display of characters with the 1943 background of war-ravaged Italy. The main character Lucia Fontini sings opera at her deceased husband Aldo¿s trattoria but ardently sets out in search of her partisan son Beppe after he destroys a German truck and goes into hiding. During her determined efforts to find him, Lucia encounters an American spy Anna Marie Malone, disguised as a nun, and meets her former suitor at the San Guarino train station. She suffers wounds in a bombing, takes shelter in an olive grove with other survivors, and receives aid from the American medic Frank Lamb, assigned to protect her and assist allied soldiers wounded in advanced guard movements against the Germans. Despite her wounds, Lucia then sets out on foot for Mengo, only to join passing farmers going to Cassaromilia. There, she views the bodies of dead Americans, earlier executed by their captors. Throughout her entire ordeal, Lucia sings out loud, mentally, and in her memory the arias of Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, and Leoncavallo but feels only silence after Anna Marie Malone¿s torture and rape by the enemy. An unexpected turn of events helps her to regain her operatic talent. This charming narrative, skillfully woven, falls in the tradition of calamitous war/ travel literature like Alberto Moravia¿s Two Women and Beppe Fenoglio¿s stories about partisans, although softened to tragicomedy proportions through humor and the pervasive presence of Italian opera, as well as Ugo Fantini¿s turning of friendship with Lucia to romance¿all within the confines of a brutal conflict. In addition, Fellini¿s films infiltrate the writer¿s psyche, as when a wounded Lucia who receives her morphine shot, enters the world of dreams and converses with Enrico Caruso. Instead of singing the lyrics of Rosina in Rossini¿s The Barber of Seville, Lucia often substitutes the word lambrusco and rearranges the syllables in every way. She would start out ¿comical like a clown but the song would find its own way, lightly, airily, importantly, lam-brus-co, o-o-o, o-o-o¿ '26'. Reading Cooney¿s novel is not like drinking the cheap soda-type wine most people in America are familiar with but would rather be like tasting real lambrusco in a restaurant on the Italian Adriatic.