A Kiss from Maddalena
Mismatched young lovers come of age in the waning days of World War II in the remote mountain villages of 1940s Italy. But peace—and the lure of America and opportunity—changes everything.
- Algonquin Books, 2003 (hardcover)
- ISBN: 1402565429
- Berkeley, 2004 (paperback)
- ISBN: 0425196429
- Where to buy
It is the spring of 1943, and most of the young men of the village of Santa Cecilia have gone to war. But for the rest of the villagers the war is far away. Aside from the rationing of food and the occasional air raid sirens, life goes on. But Vito Leone, one of the village's last remaining young men, is a few months short of his eighteenth birthday and, therefore, the draft. With time of the essence, he has begun to woo the beautiful Maddalena Piccinelli, the youngest and most prized daughter of the town's most powerful family. Her parents dismiss Vito as an unworthy "mammoni"—a Mama's boy. Her older sister Carolina thwarts him and calls him a fool. Even his best friend Buccio thinks he's in over his head. But Maddalena sees something entirely different in Vito—his humor, tenderness and honesty. As the war intensifies, so do her feelings toward her unlikely suitor.
When the Italians surrender to the Allies and the retreating German soldiers invade Santa Cecilia, everyone flees except Vito and his bereft, ailing mother. Alone amidst the ruins of his village, Vito, with bravery, ingenuity and boundless devotion, comes up with a plan to prove himself deserving of Maddalena. The Piccinellis and the rest of the villagers return home after the war to find that Vito has made a few changes. Now, only one man—a surprise visitor from America—stands in his way. Ultimately, Maddalena is faced with an impossible choice between tradition, family pride and her heart's desire—a choice that could have enormous impact on her, Vito and everyone around them.
A Kiss From Maddalena is a tender and compassionate coming-of-age story about family duty and love in a time and place when world events and modern ideas seemed distant and incomprehensible, even as the enemy bombed houses, tanks rumbled through the village and young sons, often uncertain why they were fighting in the first place, rarely came home. Alternately lighthearted, romantic and devastating, it is a realistic and bittersweet account of the passions of youth and the innocence of a simpler, bygone era.
A Kiss from Maddalena has also been published in the United Kingdom (Orion), Australia (Text), The Netherlands (AmboAnthos), Germany (Goldmann), and Thailand (Matichon).
Stendhal, in his book On Love, claimed that Italy was the home of passionate love because Italians take reverie as seriously as politics. Castellani, a young American writer, takes the Stendhalian viewpoint in this charming first novel. Vito, Maddalena and Carolina are strong characters, and Castellani creates a velvety, cinematic atmosphere...Like a Verdi opera, Castellani's story creates a certain grandeur out of its own lightness.Publishers Weekly
[A] lyrical first outing about star-crossed love in southern Italy in the 1940s... A beautiful rendering of provincial life, with the unchanging natural rhythms and structured society... Castellani's faultless reproduction of a distant time and place, his elegant, eloquent prose, and his warm sympathy mark him as a talent to watch.Kirkus Reviews
"[Castellani's] intimate knowledge of the setting and of Italian political and social history is expertly woven into this charming love story which offers a wealth of authentic detail... This is a poignant love story set against an extremely convincing picture of wartime society in a small Italian village. Inward-looking to the extreme...a very enjoyable read."Lucinda Byatt, The Historical Novels Review (UK), May 2004
"[A] story of the tender love and passions of youth overcome by the strength of family duty...I can't wait for the next instalment in the lives of the people of Santa Cecilia."Georgina Haywood, The Evening Press (York, England), June 2004
"Vito's courtship of Maddalena in war-torn Italy forms the substance of Christopher Castellani's operatic first novel, which displays considerable grace and charm. He loves the lovely young woman, but is he good enough for her? Her family thinks not—especially with a rich American suitor in the wings. And Vito's determination to care for his deranged mother doesn't help his cause. A notable debut."Dallas Morning News, Books in Brief
"This love story offers so much more than you might expect. There's romance, yes, but also its opposite... [A] wonderful, compelling novel—the kind that, if this were summer, I'd be recommending for a holiday read. But don't wait. This is a moving exploration of what it is to be human that works cleverly at both intimate and broad political levels. Here is young love in all its confusion and fervency, as well as cynicism, betrayal, and sacrifice."Margie Thomsom, The New Zealand Herald, Auckland, New Zealand
"...a small slice of perfection!"Vogue Australia
"Tiny Italian villages perched on hill-tops now more often inspire self-indulgent, self-satisfied travel books than novels. A Kiss from Maddalena provides a happy, rare exception to that rule...[Castellani] captures the edginess and giddiness of teenage feelings with both passion and precision. [His] approach is neither patronising nor evasive; he makes us care about [his characters] without either dressing them up or setting them up. [He] almost never strains for an effect. Castellani is...a singularly reticent, discreet writer. [His] skill in making [Maddalena's] predicament credible and moving should encourage readers to try a novel that is quieter and sweeter than the norm."Mark Thomas, The Age, Melbourne, Australia
"[Castellani] produces a memorable first 'Kiss.' Well-conceived and...well-researched. How a writer makes sense of his ancestors' experience, then synthesizes that understanding in his fiction, has a value of its own. Certainly his parents (or grandparents, and so on) might be the best candidates to tell their own stories, but Castellani's story has its identifying marks—and, in turn, could only be his. [He] moves his novel swiftly and smoothly, with credible characters and convincing dialogue. The ending, like the book, is subtle and satisfying."Jules Verdone, The Boston Globe
"Castellani writes in prose that is both rhythmically elegant and studiously descriptive, and he juggles his large cast of characters with agility and aplomb. But the novel's most outstanding feature is its plotting: A Kiss from Maddalena moves swiftly and gracefully, generating unbearable suspense over Vito and Maddalena's fates."Stephen Deusner, The News Journal (Wilmington, DE)
"In strong and eloquent prose, Castellani enchants us even as he tells us: Santa Cecilia is, indeed, lying down, exhausted by war, dreaming of the future. In the hands of a less talented writer, such a story might fall into the abyss of cliché: Love in turbulent times is ripe territory for sentimentality. Yet Castellani, writing of passion without affectation or exaggeration, deftly exposes the heart scarred by war."Catherine Parnell, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Castellani's description of the small Italian towns makes me want to go there even more. The story brings the reader into the lives of those just trying to survive the war and illustrates how hard it was not knowing what was happening to their loved ones. It will keep you guessing until the end."Dina Matson, Book Garden, Lake City, MN (for BookSense 76)
"Christopher Castellani is a rare writer of understated grace and skill, and A Kiss from Maddalena left me speechless and teary more than once. The writing flows softly, beautifully, lyrically, and it seems almost effortless. That Castellani is capturing a country and era very distant from his own life experience is all the more astonishing. He presents in vivid detail and unfailing context both the ache of love and the horror of war with a deft, expert touch."Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Author of The Dirty Girls' Social Club
"A lovely, rare work of fiction that brings to life the intimate world of a village. I was haunted and moved by the story...The Italian landscape as well as the culture it supported in those harrowing days of World War Two are beautifully summoned. A Kiss from Maddalena is a considerable accomplishment."Jay Parini, Author of The Apprentice Lover
"Christopher Castellani's charming first novel is a fully imagined story of young love and war, a book whose sweet vividness will remind readers of Fellini's Amarcord. A transporting debut."Thomas Mallon, Author of Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman and Bandbox
"Chris Castellani's first novel is a diorama so intricately built and beautifully lit that you can't stop staring into it—this luminous little world more real than your own. His Italian villagers, hostages of history and family and desire, will break your heart and then put it back together better than it was before. A Kiss from Maddalena is surely the beginning of a glorious career."Ralph Lombreglia, Author of Men Under Water and Make Me Work
"A Kiss from Maddalena is an Italian feast—a beautifully-paced, elegantly-told story, brimming with passion, love, warmth and tinged with ample coatings of sadness and longing. Christopher Castellani has written a rare first novel, one that makes the small-town intimacy of Italy seem just a short block away."Lorenzo Carcaterra, Author of Street Boys and Gangster
Elegy for the Living
This essay originally appeared in The Algonkian magazine
When I was writing my novel, I often had long phone conversations with my parents, who are both Italian immigrants. Once I asked them to say the first words that came to mind when they thought of their village in the 1940s.
"The most miserable time of my life," said my father. "And that should be the title."
My mother sighed. "Essagerato," she said—exaggerator. "Everything was simple then, not like now. You were happy. I saw you."
"I don't remember happiness," he said dramatically. "I remember bombs, cold, no food at all."
The next night, they switched sides. My mother remembered only misery and my father reminded her of the beauty of snow falling on the chestnut trees. The conversation triggered the telling of a story, this one of a woman they called L'Abbondonata, the abandoned one, who went crazy waiting for her husband to return from America.
"Tell me about her," I asked, pen in hand.
I honestly don't remember a time when I found their stories boring. I was not a cool or rebellious kid: my parents were my best (and, sometimes, only) friends, and I loved to hear them talk about the village. They'd had one bike shared among ten kids; they'd used fireplace ashes to wash their laundry; the girls would act out plays in the woods and the boys would pelt them with olives. When I procrastinated, my father would say, "Chi ha tempo non aspetta tempo—he who has time shouldn't wait for time," and it annoyed me. But it stuck.
When I was in elementary school, both my parents worked full-time—my father on the line at the Sunbeam Bakery, my mother as a seamstress—and in the afternoons I was put into the care of a teenager down the street, a Filipino girl with a passion for break dancing, cigarettes, and boys with motorcycles. She'd talk on the phone while I watched anxiously at the window for our family car, panicked that something terrible had happened to my mother and father. The panic would crescendo as six o'clock neared and I imagined my life without my best friends.
I'm convinced now that the writing of this novel began there, in the window of that baby-sitter's house. Not the physical act of putting words to paper, of course, but the loneliness and longing necessary to do so, to fight time by preserving it in narrative, to record the voices and stories of loved ones in order to keep them close.
Luckily, my parents always made it home, never knowing I feared otherwise. We'd eat dinner together: homemade pasta with sauce prepared the previous Sunday; greens my mother had picked from the field behind our house; fillets of beef pan-fried in olive oil; rice cooked with hard-boiled eggs, butter and cheese. It was delicious, but not fancy—a peasant's meal, actually, because that was what they knew. Food was their only connection to home.
Food and stories.
As a kid, I worried about them. they were much older than my classmates' parents and often seemed helpless, childlike, in the face of language and cultural barriers. I protected them, became their translator and guide. And sometime around the sixth grade, as part of an English assignment, I wrote a short story set during World War II about a group of girls who had to share a bicycle.
I've revisited that story again and again over the past twenty years, refining and expanding it, and now it has become, miraculously, A Kiss from Maddalena. And yet the novel is not historical fact or a literal retelling of my parents' marriage. It is inspired by our lifelong conversations and by the passion and contradictions inherent in the tales of village life. For my parents, I wanted to make their shared past not only present but immortal. For my readers, I hoped to transport them to another time and place. Who better to guide them than the voices of two young lovers?Christopher Castellani, 2003