The Madonna of the Mountains: A Novel by Elise Valmorbida

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Her heart is trapped. Her mouth is dry. Words spill out before she knows it. “Please, dear God, make him good and handsome.”

“Stupid girl, ” her mother says. “When the children are hungry, they won’t cry Papà, belo, they’ll cry Papà, pan!” 

Yes, its bread they’ll want, not looks, but Maria can’t help herself. She has waited so long.

Men are scarce and at twenty-five Maria is fast arriving at a nearly unmarriageable age. The story begins with her father leaving on his mule with food and her photograph to find her a good husband. She is a pretty, strong, healthy and a good, pious daughter- everything worthy of having as a wife. With so many men absent due to the war, he has no choice but to look elsewhere. Living in the Italian countryside is hard, the war is on and Mussolini rules with an ‘iron-fist’, people go hungry. Marriage for love isn’t vital to survive, in a sense it is a business deal so when Maria sets eyes on her husband to be she is happy to learn he is strong and easy on the eyes. There will be no hunchback for her, praise God! She will keep home and make children, all will be happy and right with the world. She no longer has to fear becoming La Delfina, the madwoman who “howls to the moon like a wild dog”. Oh no, she will have a husband, a family, a future! She will not be a mad wandering spinster. With lines like “show him your teeth”, when meeting her suitor, it’s easy to rebel at the reality women faced in a patriarchy.

Each choice made by Maria Vittoria and her husband Achille, a veteran of war with scars and tales of his own, are for the betterment and survival of their children to come. The more children they have, the more money they make. They move, open a grocery store and fall into disgrace. When Maria is in a desperate situation, she will do anything to save her husband, to keep food in her children’s bellies. There is a cousin, one she once had tender feelings for who may be able to help her. But that too is a dangerous decision, and from there his own darkness, and her feelings expose the struggle during times of war, when no one is to be trusted and neighbors whispered suspicions can be life or death, freedom or imprisonment and disrupt love between husband and wife.

Imprisonment, brutality, and broken men returned who will never again be head of the household, young daughters that ache for a different life, who want to marry for love, not caring for family approval, the terror and hope of immigrating, of escape, our Maria will know all of these things. She will be tested as a wife, and as a mother. Discovering secrets of her husband’s past are enough to wound her, are truths she will never be able to ‘not know’. It’s a coming of age in a sense, a hopeful young woman with a hunger from romance that is forced to grow up and lose so much (her dreams, her children). Times of war don’t allow for selfishness, for romantic liaisons nor salvation, because everything costs you something, someone is always watching and no one is judged more than a woman, a mother.

There is no such thing as lying low, as not chosing sides. Who do you trust, your own people, those who invade, others who liberate you? How do you save face with a husband you betrayed in order to save? Can praying to the Madonna of the mountains protect and heal Maria? Will she be forgiven her sins? Can she keep a bowed head while suffering abuse? Does she deserve it for the sins she committed? Miscarriages, births, deaths, love, lies, motherhood -there is a lot going on in this novel. Through war, there is still family complications, and everything is about survival. It’s a harsh reality about an Italian woman during a horrible period of hunger and war; how she loses innocence and hope but stays alive, with sin and without, and keeps her family safe, but it costs her plenty, and her soul is often under scrutiny, by others as much as herself.

Publication Date: June 12, 2018

Random House

Spiegel & Grau

 

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