Adriana Trigiani’s newest historical novel, The Shoemaker’s Wife, explores the complex inward and outward journeys we take to prepare ourselves for love. The book follows Ciro and Enza, a young couple who meet during the first years of the 20th century in the spectacularly beautiful but impoverished Italian Alps. They seem so close, so destined for each other, but circumstances, the missteps of youth, and (no small wrinkle) World War I all conspire to separate them as they journey from Italy to other opportunities abroad.
While the book is constructed as a novel — with an intriguing split narrative that moves between Enza’s journey and Ciro’s — it is in fact an exhaustively researched account of the lives of Trigiani’s own grandparents. Ciro was a shoemaker-craftsman. Enza was a dressmaker of such artistry that she worked for years in the costume shop of the Metropolitan Opera, sewing for Enrico Caruso, the superstar tenor. Trigiani’s legions of fans, those fascinated by immigrant literature, and opera lovers will all welcome The Shoemaker’s Wife.
Prior to her Nashville appearance on Wednesday, April 18, Trigiani answered questions from Chapter 16 via email about the challenges of writing a biographical novel.
In writing this lush novel of your grandparents’ long, complex courtship, did you alter any aspects of the story to accommodate the demands of a novel — or out of respect for family members?
I let my imagination guide me. For example, my grandmother was a big Enrico Caruso fan and also a couturier, so I put her in the costume shop of the Metropolitan Opera where she made Caruso’s costumes. I think if she were still here, she would get a kick out of that. I took copious notes of our conversations when I visited her after college (I would go up to northern Minnesota and visit her once a year, every year until she died). So many things she told me I never wanted to forget — like the fact that she and my grandfather were deeply in love when they married. Many of the young couples who married back in 1920 were in arranged marriages. She wanted me to understand that she chose him and he chose her.
How does The Shoemaker’s Wife reflect some of the themes of your Valentine series?
I’m always turning over the same rock. I’m interested in why we love whom we choose to love and how we survive by the labor of our own hands. It’s always love and work, as themes, that intrigue, fascinate and drive me. The Valentine series is about a family business. It’s the contemporary story of a family who inherited a shoemaking business from 1903. I guess The Shoemaker’s Wife is the story of the immigrants who came over and started the businesses and built the worlds and the life the subsequent generations enjoy. Craftsmanship is a big theme with me because I don’t want to forget how skilled and artful my grandparents were at their work. My grandmother gave me a nightgown that her mother had made for her, and I have it still. The stitches are practically invisible, that’s how skilled she was. I try to write about those skills so they will never be forgotten.
Anti-immigrant prejudice is well-known (both in the time of your novel and in the present day), but you haven’t sugar-coated the fact that some immigrants didn’t hesitate to take advantage of others, even those of their own ethnicity. For example, Enza’s distant relatives in Hoboken are quite willing to exploit her. Can you speak to this phenomenon and how it played out in the immigrant experience?
Sometimes the downtrodden become bullies because they grow weary of their own circumstances. It doesn’t justify the bad behavior or excuse it, but it does provide it a context that bears examination. Anna Buffa would never think she was cruel to Enza; she would think that she was generous and accommodating. Anna knows she feels anger, but she doesn’t think that anger is unjustified. In her mind, she is training her immigrant cousin to run a household and be useful. She is actually helping the person she is abusing. You see where I’m going here. I don’t think this is so much about ethnicity, but specificity of character. I can show you many acts of kindness in the novel among the Italians, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t also capable of the lesser human traits.
You are one of a group of Appalachian writers, including Barbara Kingsolver and Silas House, who have spoken out against mountaintop-removal mining. What role do you feel the literary community can play in addressing the social, political and environmental issues of this region?
Barbara and Silas care deeply about the sanctity of the earth and the treasure we have been handed by simply being born. They are stewards of the land. They also know what I know—having grown up in southwest Virginia, we honor, know, and love coal miners. We admire their skills, their sacrifices and the great contribution they make to providing energy for our lives. The lamps we read by are lit because they go down in the earth and mine the coal that powers electricity. These are facts.
The role the literary community plays in addressing the issues of the region are the same as they have always been. Art is the emotional landscape of a culture. We will try to express, always, what something feels like and why it matters. Further, we will share that knowledge in story, song, and manifesto. We hold beauty, nature, and context as sacred. It’s our job to police every leaf, branch, and rock because an artist never knows where he or she will find inspiration. Our goal is to hold on to beauty, and in so doing, find truth. We’re also, in our own various ways, problem solvers. We think there’s a way to have it all, the lamp lit and the mountain preserved. It’s just in us to think anything is possible.