With all this talk of love, I have to begin by saying that in one's life there are always certain people who you feel proud to know, who you want all your other friends to meet, and who you wish could always come to every party. One of those people is Christopher Castellani, who I still thank the stars that I met many years past. Christopher is a rare soul, and the hundreds upon hundreds of people in the book industry that know him (he's a key driving force at the magnificent Grub Street writing center) are likely to tell you that.
I have grown to know Christopher more and more over the years but after our initial meeting, my first foray into understanding a little about him was by reading his first book, which still ranks among my most memorable reads in my life, "A Kiss From Maddelena." In it we meet the protagonist of all three of his books, Maddelena Grasso, a sweet, shy and beautiful woman who is swept away by the circumstances around her-- the ending of WWII and a father who wants to arrange her marriage, but not to the boy she loves. I can still picture Maddelena as a girl, flying through the town on her bicycle. I can feel the emotion of the clandestine moments with Vito, the boy who steals her heart. I can still remember the roller coaster of emotions that first book put me through.
His second novel, "The Saint of Lost Things," follows Maddelena to America and there I was thrust into yet another swing of highs and lows as I followed more of her life with her new husband, her children and working in America.
But "All This Talk of Love" takes the cake for me. Part of why I loved his first two novels is that I found a bit of familiarity in them. My mother-in-law is a second generation Italian and the way her mother arrived in America was not too dissimilar from that of Maddelena. The times in which she grew up were also very similar and the stories she tells remind me so much of what the Grasso family went through. So when pieces of this latest novel began to mirror my own life a little, I found myself deeply moved in a way that was completely unanticipated.
In "All This Talk of Love," Maddelena is at the end of her life. She is trying hard to deal with old age gracefully and with the myriad of changes happening to her family. Her husband is dealing with his own demons and her children are facing challenges that Maddelena could hardly begin to comprehend. I read this book in less than two days, so rapt was I in wanting to know what was going to happen to all of the Grassos. And in the midst of that I felt like I was walking the same line as some of the people swirling around Maddelena, watching as she struggles with growing older just as I am watching my mother-in-law growing older. I am not sure that a book has ever made me feel so moved, so curious and so heartbroken, all at the same time.
When I talked to Chris about how his book made me feel, he shared with me some of the impetus for writing these novels, some of which he talks about in his author's note at the end of the book so I'll let you read for yourself. But what struck me most about our conversation is the deep love that he feels for his characters, as though they are family. Of course any writer will tell you that their characters are like family, but to him, Maddelena is like family in the true sense of the word. He identifies with his characters in the same way that he sees his own family, and it was that same nerve that was struck in me as I was reading. To me, over the course of each novel, the Grassos had become a symbol for a piece of my own family and Maddelena was someone who made me feel connected in so many unsaid ways to how I think about my mother-in-law.
In short, I say go buy this book. Go buy all three of his books. "All This Talk of Love" certainly stands on its own, but oh how rich the stories are when they are woven so completely together. Note that I have some measure of bias because it's easy to gush about Christopher as a person, but I would write these words regardless of my connection to him. Maddelena will endear herself to you long after those books are finished, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. At a recent reading Christopher met a woman who had named her baby after Maddelena!
Honestly, the books are beautiful, timeless and they will leave their mark on you.
- First sentences from new books, Feb. 17 (sfgate.com)
- Book Notes - Christopher Castellani "All This Talk of Love" (largeheartedboy.com)
- Books: A third Grasso family novel (bostonglobe.com)
- Interview with Christopher Castellani: All This Talk of Love (psychologytoday.com)