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A trio of second-born daughters sets out on a whirlwind journey through the lush Italian countryside to break the family curse that says they’ll never find love, by New York Times bestseller Lori Nelson Spielman, author of The Life List.
Since the day Filomena Fontana cast a curse upon her sister more than two hundred years ago, not one second-born Fontana daughter has found lasting love. Some, like second-born Emilia, the happily-single baker at her grandfather’s Brooklyn deli, claim it’s an odd coincidence. Others, like her sexy, desperate-for-love cousin Lucy, insist it’s a true hex. But both are bewildered when their great-aunt calls with an astounding proposition: If they accompany her to her homeland of Italy, Aunt Poppy vows she’ll meet the love of her life on the steps of the Ravello Cathedral on her eightieth birthday, and break the Fontana Second-Daughter Curse once and for all.
Against the backdrop of wandering Venetian canals, rolling Tuscan fields, and enchanting Amalfi Coast villages, romance blooms, destinies are found, and family secrets are unearthed—secrets that could threaten the family far more than a centuries-old curse.
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Seventy-two cannoli shells cool on a baking rack in front of me. I squeeze juice from diced maraschino cherries and carefully fold them into a mixture of cream and ricotta cheese and powdered sugar. Through a cloudy rectangular window in the back kitchen, I peer into the store. Lucchesi Bakery and Delicatessen is quiet this morning, typical for a Tuesday. My grandmother, Nonna Rosa Fontana Lucchesi, stands behind the deli counter, rearranging the olives, stirring stainless steel containers of roasted peppers and feta cheeses. My father pushes through the double doors, balancing a tray heaped with sliced prosciutto. With tongs, he transfers it into the refrigerated meat case, creating a stack between the pancetta and capicola.
At the front of the store, behind the cash register, my older sister, Daria, rests her backside against the candy counter, her thumbs tapping her phone. No doubt she's texting one of her girlfriends, probably complaining about Donnie or the girls. Dean Martin's "That's Amore" streams through the speakers-a final reminder of my late grandfather, who insisted Italian music created an aura of authenticity in his bakery and delicatessen-never mind that this one's an American song sung by an American singer. And I have nothing against my deceased grandfather's musical taste except that our entire repertoire of Italian music spans thirty-three songs. Thirty-three songs I can-and sometimes do-sing, word for word, in my sleep.
I turn my attention to the cannoli, piping cream into the six dozen hollow shells. Soon, the music fades, the smell of pastry vanishes. I'm far away, in Somerset, England, lost in my story . . .
She waits on the Clevedon Pier, gazing out to sea, where the setting sun glitters upon the rippling waters. A voice calls. She spins around, hoping to find her lover. But there, lurking in the shadows, her ex—
I jump when the bell on the wall beside me chimes. I hitch up my glasses and peer through the window.
It's Mrs. Fortino, bearing a bouquet of orange and yellow gerbera daisies. Her silver hair is pulled into a sleek chignon, and a pair of beige slacks shows off her slim figure. From behind the meat counter, my father straightens to his full five-foot, ten-inch frame and sucks in the belly protruding from his apron. Nonna watches, her face puckered, as if she's just downed a shot of vinegar.
"Buongiorno, Rosa," Mrs. Fortino chirps as she strides past the deli counter.
Nonna turns away, muttering, "Puttana," the Italian word for floozy.
Mrs. Fortino makes her way to the mirror, as she always does, before approaching my father's meat counter. The mirror doubles as a window, which means that unbeknownst to her, Mrs. Fortino is gazing into the same window I'm peering out of from the kitchen. I step back while she checks her lipstick-the same shade of pink as her blouse-and smooths her hair. Satisfied, she wheels around to where my dad stands behind the meat counter.
"For you, Leo." She smiles and holds the daisies in front of her.
My grandmother gives a little huff, like a territorial goose, hissing at anyone who so much as glances at her baby gosling. Never mind that the "gosling" is her sixty-six-year-old son-in-law who's been widowed for almost three decades.
My balding father takes the daisies, his cheeks flaming. He thanks Mrs. Fortino, as he does every week, and sneaks a peek at my nonna. Nonna stirs the marinated mushrooms, making believe she's paying no attention whatsoever.
"Have a nice day, Leo," Mrs. Fortino says and gives him a pretty little wave.
"Same to you, Virginia." My father's hand searches for a vase beneath the counter, but his eyes follow Mrs. Fortino down the aisle. My heart aches for them both.
The bell chimes again and a tall man saunters into the store. It's the guy who came in last week and bought a dozen of my cannoli, the elegant stranger who looks like he belongs in Beverly Hills, not Brooklyn. He's talking to my dad and Nonna. I huddle near the door, catching snippets of their conversation.
"Hands down, best cannoli in New York."
A tiny chirp of laughter escapes me. I tip my head closer to the wall.
"I took a dozen to a meeting last week. My team devoured them. I've become the most popular account manager at Morgan Stanley."
"This is what we like to hear," my father says. "Lucchesi Bakery and Delicatessen has been around since 1959. Everything is homemade."
"Really? Any chance I can thank the baker personally?"
I straighten. In the past decade, not one person has asked to meet me, let alone thank me.
"Rosa," my father says to Nonna. "Could you get Emilia, please?"
"Oh, my god," I whisper. I yank the net from my hair, releasing a thick brown ponytail that I instantly regret not washing this morning. My hands fumble as I untie my apron and straighten my glasses. Instinctively, I put a finger to my bottom lip.
The scar, no thicker than a strand of thread, is smooth after nearly two decades, and faded to a pale shade of blue. But it's there, just below my lip. I know it's there.
The stainless double doors push open and Nonna Rosa appears, her short, stout frame intimidating and officious. "One box of cannoli," she says, her lips tight. "Presto."
"Si“, Nonna. Good thinking." I grab three freshly filled cannoli and slip them into a box. As I head for the double doors, she grabs the box from my hands.
"Get back to work. You have orders to fill."
"But, Nonna, he-"
"He is a busy man," she says. "No reason to waste his time." She disappears from the kitchen.
I stare after her, my mouth agape, until the swinging doors slow to a stop. "I am sorry," I hear her announce. "The baker has left early today."
I rear back. "What the hell?" I didn't expect romance. I know better than that. I simply wanted to hear someone gush about my pastries. How dare Nonna rob me of that!
Through the back-kitchen window, I watch the man chat with Daria as he pays for a bottle of Bravazzi Italian soda. He lifts the little white box that I—Nonna—gave him, and I get the feeling he's praising my cannoli again.
That's it. I don't care what Nonna says, or how narcissistic it seems, I'm going out there.
Just as I remove my apron, my sister's eyes dart to the window. She can't see me, but I can tell she knows I'm watching. Our eyes meet. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she shakes her head no.
I step back, the breath knocked from me. I lean against the wall and close my eyes. She's only trying to protect me from Nonna's wrath. I'm the second-born Fontana daughter. Why would Nonna waste this decent, cannoli-loving man's time on me, a woman my entire family is certain will never find love?
It's a four-block walk from the store on Twentieth Avenue to my tiny third-floor apartment on Seventy-Second Street, which I call Emville. As usual, I'm clutching a bag of pastries today. The late August sun has softened, and the breeze carries the first hint of summer's end.
Located on its southern edge, Bensonhurst is Brooklyn's stepchild—a modest neighborhood wedged between the more gentrified communities of Coney Island and Bay Ridge. As a kid, I dreamed of leaving, setting out for somewhere more glamorous than this tired ethnic community. But Bensonhurst-the place where my grandparents, along with thousands of other Italians, settled in the twentieth century—is home. It was once called the Little Italy of Brooklyn. They actually filmed the movie Saturday Night Fever on our sidewalks. Today, things have changed. For every Italian shop or restaurant, you'll find a Russian bakery, a Jewish deli, or a Chinese restaurant—additions my nonna calls invadente—intrusive.
I spy our old brick row house—the only house I've ever known. While my parents honeymooned in Niagara Falls back in the 1980s, Nonna Rosa and Nonno Alberto moved all of their belongings down to the first level, allowing my parents to make their home on the second floor. My dad has lived there ever since. I wonder sometimes what my father, who was over a decade older than my mother, thought of his in-laws' arrangement. Did he have any choice? Was my mother just as strong willed as her mother, my nonna Rosa?
I have only faint memories of Josephina Fontana Lucchesi Antonelli, standing at the stove, smiling and telling me stories while she stirred bubbling pots that smelled of apples and cinnamon. But Daria says it's my imagination, and she's probably right. Daria was four and I was only two when our mother died from acute myelogenous leukemia—what I've since learned is the deadliest form of the disease. My memory surely was of her mother, my nonna Rosa, at the stove. But the smiling storyteller doesn't jibe with the reality of my surly nonna, the woman who, for as long as I can remember, has seemed perpetually irritated with me. And why wouldn't she be? Her daughter's illness coincided perfectly with her pregnancy with me.
"Afternoon, Emmie." Mr. Copetti, dressed in his blue and gray uniform, stops before turning up the sidewalk. "Want your mail now, or should I put it in your box?"
I trot over to him. "I'll take the Publishers Clearing House winner's notification. You keep the bills."
He chuckles and sorts through his canvas bag, then hands me a taco-like bundle, a glossy flyer serving as its shell.
"Just what I was hoping for," I say, giving it a cursory glance. "Credit card applications and Key Food coupons I'll never remember to use."
He smiles and lifts a hand. "Have a nice day, Emmie."
"You, too, Mr. Copetti."
I move next door to another brick building, this one beige, and step into the entryway. Patrizia Ciofi belts out an aria from La Traviata. I peer through the glass door. Despite the opera thundering from his 1990s CD player—the newest item in his shop—Uncle Dolphie is sound asleep in one of his barber chairs. Strangely, it's the jingling of the bells when I open the door that always startles him. I pull the handle and, as expected, he jumps to life, swiping at the drool on his chin and straightening his glasses.
"Emilia!" he cries, with such gusto you'd swear he hadn't seen me in weeks. My uncle is more cute than handsome, with a head full of downy white curls and cheeks so full you'd swear he'd just had his wisdom teeth extracted. He's wearing his usual barber smock, solid black with three diagonal snaps on the right collar, and Dolphie embroidered on the pocket.
"Hi, Uncle Dolphie," I shout over the music. The younger brother of Nonna Rosa, Dolphie is technically my great-uncle. But Fontanas don't bother with these kinds of distinctions. I hold out the bag to him. "Pistachio biscotti and a slice of panforte today."
"Grazie." He teeters as he snags the bag, and I resist the urge to steady him. At age seventy-eight, my uncle is still a proud man. "Shall I get a knife?" he asks.
I give my usual reply. "It's all yours, thanks."
He makes his way over to his CD player, perched on the ledge of a mirror. With a hand peppered in age spots, he lowers the volume. The opera quiets. I set my mail beside the cash register and step over to an old metal cart, littered with magazines and advertising leaflets, and pour myself a cup of coffee with cream.
We sit side by side in the empty barber chairs. His rectangular wire-framed glasses, similar to mine but twice as large, slide down his nose as he eats his treat.
"Busy day?" I ask.
"Si“," he says, though the tiny shop is empty, as always. "Extremely."
When I was a little girl, my uncle would have three men waiting for cuts, another for a hot shave, and two more drinking grappa and playing Scopa in the back room. Dolphie's barbershop was the neighborhood hub, the place to come for opera and boisterous debate and local gossip. But these days, the shop is as vacant as a telephone booth. I guess I can't blame anyone for no longer trusting a shaky old man to hold a razor to his neck.
"Your cousin Luciana scheduled a haircut today. I promised to fit her in." He glances at his watch. "She is late, as usual."
"She's probably tied up at work," I say, instantly regretting my choice of words. My impetuous cousin Lucy—second cousin, if I were being precise—makes no pretense of her active "social life." This, together with the fact that her boyfriend du jour is her coworker, makes it entirely possible that Lucy really is tied up at work. "How's Aunt Ethel?" I say, changing the subject.
Uncle Dolphie raises his brows. "Last night she saw her sister. She's always happy when she sees Adriana." He chuckles and dabs his mouth with his napkin. "If only I could get that woman to appear more often."
My aunt Ethel and uncle Dolphie live above the barbershop in a two-bedroom apartment my aunt has always believed is haunted. Sweet Ethel claims she sees the ghosts of her relatives from the old country, which, I suspect, is one of the reasons my uncle continues to keep regular hours at the empty barbershop. Everyone needs an escape, I suppose. I used to ask my aunt if she ever saw my mother. She always said no. A few years ago, I finally stopped asking.
Uncle Dolphie drops one last bite into his mouth and brushes the crumbs from his hands. "Delizioso," he says and shuffles over to his barber station. He returns with the pages I gave him yesterday.
"I am liking this story, la mia nipote talentata."
My talented niece? I bite my lip to hide my glee. "Grazie."
"You are building momentum. I sense conflict coming."
"You're right," I say, remembering the plotline I imagined today at work. I pull last night's pages from my satchel and hand them to him. "I'll bring the next installment on Thursday."
He scowls. "Nothing tomorrow?"
I can't help but smile. It's our secret, my little writing hobby. "Never underestimate the blueprint for a dream," he likes to say. Uncle Dolphie once told me he had a dream of writing an opera when he was young, though he refuses to share his notes with me, or even his ideas. "Silliness," he always says, and he turns fifty shades of red. But I love that he once had the blueprint for a dream. I only wish he hadn't underestimated it.
Reading Group Guide
The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany
Lori Nelson Spielman Questions for Discussion
1. When she first steps foot on Italian soil, Poppy cries, “Hiraeth!”: a Welsh word conveying a deep longing for home, a nostalgia—a yearning—for the place that calls to your soul. Do you understand this feeling? Have you ever been to a place that feels inexplicably familiar or eerily unsettling? How do you explain it?
2. In chapter two, Emilia calls Bensonhurst home. When she returns from Italy, her perspective has changed. Have you ever felt trapped by a place you once loved? In what ways does travel change us? Are you more closely aligned with Poppy, an adventurous spirit who’s always in search of something, or the earlier version of Lucy, someone seemingly content in her small but predictable world?
3. Poppy claims that life is much more interesting when you learn to say, “It’s possible.” How likely are you to embrace the “it’s possible” philosophy? Can you think of a time when you assumed something was impossible or out of your reach? What might have happened had you said, “It’s possible”? In your experience, do you have more regret for things you did, or for things you didn’t do?
4. Throughout Lucy’s life, her mother tried to mold Lucy into the woman who would eventually break the curse. Do you think her mom had Lucy’s best interest in mind, or do you think she was acting selfishly? Could both be true? How did her mother’s expectations affect Lucy?
5. Lucy’s desperation for love is apparent early in the novel. Later, she falls in love with Sofia. Was Lucy aware of her homosexuality prior to meeting Sofia? Was her mother? How might her life have been different had she acknowledged her sexuality at an early age? Would she have felt the same desperation to fall in love?
6. Poppy claimed the curse was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In what ways was she correct? Have you ever fallen prey to expectations, whether familial, peer, or societal? How did you rise above them?
7. In what ways did the New Year’s Eve car accident change Emilia’s life? Without this twist of fate, do you think she would have found love, perhaps with Liam, and broken the curse? How might the family dynamics have been different had Emilia broken the curse?
8. Even after a heinous betrayal, Poppy still loved her sister. Should love for a sibling be unconditional? Poppy believes she put her sister into a horrible position, having to choose between her husband and her sister. Do you agree? Could you be as forgiving as Poppy? In the end, who was most hurt by the lie, Poppy or Rosa?
9. Rosa was once a loving sister. She experienced many life changes between her childhood in Trespiano and her adult life in Brooklyn. Who or what do you believe is most responsible for her bitterness? Do you feel any empathy for Rosa?
10. Daria admits that she resented Emilia for squandering her freedom. She implies that marriage and motherhood steal this freedom from women. Do you agree? Why or why not? If you had complete autonomy, what might your life be like today?
11. Emilia says, “Young girls often dream of a white dress and a diamond ring. I suppose I had that dream, too, when I was younger. But I’m over it now.” What if, as a young girl, you were told with certainty that you would never find love? How might you be different today? Would you look physically different? What articles of clothing would you banish from your closet? Is it likely you’d have more confidence, or less? Would you have the same friends, or different ones? Might you have lived more authentically, or less authentically? In what ways might your life be happier? In what ways might it be less fulfilling?
12. In the end, Emilia’s single life is rich and full. Even so, she decides to take a chance on romance. Was her openness to love a necessary part of her character arc? How important is romantic love in a woman’s life? If you were to write an epilogue, would the future Emilia be single or in a relationship? Why?
13. Even after telling Emilia and Lucy the truth about Johanna, Poppy wanted to wait until after her sister’s death before telling the rest of the family. Why was this important to Poppy? Do you agree with her decision to protect her sister?
14. Poppy and Rico’s love withstood decades of separation. Do you think this kind of love is possible? They recited their vows on the church’s altar without papers to prove it. Do you believe they were married in the eyes of God? Was Rico right to leave without Poppy, and return to help his family in East Germany? Why or why not? Do you think he would have taken Poppy to Germany had they had a legal marriage certificate?
15. Though she tried, Emilia could not reciprocate her friend Matteo’s romantic feelings. But when Poppy tells her love comes in many forms and that not all love is romantic love, she rethinks her relationship with Matt. Do you think feelings of deep friendship and respect are enough to sustain a happy marriage? Love plays many roles, according to Poppy. What are love’s most important roles to you? Do you suspect the importance of these roles changes over time?
16. When Poppy sees Rico’s gunshot wound and learns that he tried twice to escape East Germany, she says, “I should have waited.” Of course, waiting for him in Italy would have been futile; he was never able to successfully escape. Why does Poppy say this? What is she feeling in that moment? The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, yet Rico and Poppy remained separated. Why didn’t Rico try to find Poppy then? Why didn’t she reach out to him?
17. Star-crossed is defined as “of a person or plan, thwarted by bad luck.” In what ways are Rosa and Poppy star-crossed? Could either sister have changed her fate had she tried harder? Poppy collects and distributes lucky coins. What significance does this have in the story? Does Poppy believe in luck? Would Poppy consider herself a lucky or unlucky person? Would you agree?