All This Talk of Love
A modern Italian-American family plans a visit to their ancestral village as each of them comes to grips with the past—and the inevitable future.
It's been fifty years since Antonio Grasso married Maddalena Piccinelli and brought her to America. That was the last time she saw her parents, her sisters and brothers—everything she knew and loved in the village of Santa Cecilia, Italy. Maddalena, after decades in America, sees no need to open the door to the past and let the emotional baggage and unmended rifts of another life spill out.
But Prima, her daughter and first-born, was raised on the lore of the Old Country. And as she sees her parents aging, she hatches a romantic plot to take the entire family back to Italy—hoping to let her parents see their homeland one last time and reunite Maddalena with her estranged sister. It is an idea that threatens to tear the Grasso family apart, until fate deals them some unwelcome surprises, and their trip home becomes a necessary journey.
All This Talk of Love is an incandescent novel about sacrifice and hope, loss and love, myth and memory.
"This is the third book Castellani has devoted to the Grassos, a series of novels that with their mellifluous, gently satirical style and dark, elegiac heart, form something of an opera buffa of the immigrant experience...In the Grassos and their multilayered conflicts, Castellani has created an answer of sorts to Gay Talese’s observation, 20 years ago in these pages, that no serious Italian-American writer has achieved the popular stature of a Scorsese or a Sinatra. Talese described Italian-Americans as the descendants of a people “united in the fear of being found out.” Italian-Americans were steered away from academic tracks, he argued, and then for decades even literary-minded Italian-Americans like Talese got a cold shoulder from the publishing establishment. Castellani hasn’t written the big, defining, Scorsese-scale novel Talese was missing...but he has elegantly captured the essence of Talese’s argument. Maria Russo for The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
"...rich and entertaining....Castellani juggles multiple stories and characters with remarkable deftness, never striking a false or forced note. His evocations of the love between parents and their adult children, the bittersweetness of age, and the ambivalence of immigrants toward their old and new homes is nuanced and original.
"All This Talk of Love will, no doubt, invite comparisons with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Both novels are family tales told in shifting, close third-person perspective, centering around a contentious family reunion. Some will see All This Talk of Love as less ambitious than Franzen's work. But perhaps Castellani's novel just announces its ambitions more quietly than Franzen's did. The suspenseful plot of All This Talk of Love, its delicious readability take nothing away from its emotional depth and power." Suzanne Koven for The Boston Globe
"[All This Talk of Love] is, in my view, an American masterpiece, a tenderly ruthless examination of the bonds of family, the ways in which love perseveres in the midst of insoluble grief and complex regrets. I read the book in a kind of frenzy, feeling all the while that exquisite stab of envy that overtakes us when we feel our own talents eclipsed, and our hearts enlarged." Steve Almond for The Rumpus
"Castellani writes movingly, affectingly of immigrant life, of the dichotomy of cultures, of the persistence of love across generations." Kirkus Reviews
"At turns funny and tragic, Castellani's third novel... recalls similar contemporary family sagas, such as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, but is far less cynical. Literary scholar Frankie reviles sentimentality, and the author manages to stop short of it while still making the story emotionally resonant. This reviewer defies anyone not to fall in love with the Grassos. Recommended." Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis for Library Journal (Starred)
"In his long-awaited third novel, Castellani (The Saint of Lost Things, 2005) plumbs the depths of intricate family life and comes up with realistically complex characters, funny quirks that make utter sense, and an examination of the bonds that can both compel and repel....Family histories and secrets reveal themselves a wisp at a time, layered into the story with sugar and plenty of spice by Castellani's evocative writing." Booklist
"The final installment in Castellani's Maddalena trilogy is his best yet. This is an instantly engaging and authentic story about a multigenerational Italian-American family planning a trip to their ancestral village. Love, resentment, deception, and tenderness—all the complexities of a family in love and in conflict are handled with beauty and precision. There is not a single false note in this moving novel by a very gifted and assured writer." Stan Hynds, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT, for Indie Next List
"Castellani has hit his writerly stride in exploring the hopes, wishes and dreams of an Italian-American family...A lovely and loving story of an Italian-American family, not far from their roots, coping with loss, old myths and memories." Valerie Ryan for ShelfAwareness.com
"Christopher Castellani's third novel... illuminates the sources and results of human feeling. His complex characters prove how deeply and expansively moral people think about their lives...A riveting portrayal of a decent family spinning in a vortex of love, loss, hope and memory." Katherine Bailey for Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"[A] tender and evocative story that coveys both comedy and tragedy in a remarkable novel about what it means to be family... Drawing on his rich understanding of both Italian culture and the mechanics of family, Chris Castellani paints an incredibly moving, tender and textured portrait of the many generations of the Grassos and the ties that bind them. [P]erfect for anyone who has tried to hide a secret of the past or has left a part of themselves in another place. The book deals with the feelings and emotions that are brought to the surface when revisiting what has been left behind." Italian Tribune
"[A]s moving a rendition of the losses and discoveries of old age as I have ever read." Claire Messud, author of The Emperor's Children
"The many faces of home, all of them dear, all of them hard-won, all of them so complicated and confusing and beloved, lie at the heart of this tenderest of novels. If there is a better book about what it means to be in a family, I haven't read it." Stacy D'Erasmo, author of The Sky Below
"Castellani has a steady, sustained belief in the goodness of the human spirit. To be able to convey both comedy and tragedy in a single novel is a remarkable gift." Anita Shreve, author of Rescue
"[A] nuanced and powerful depiction of loss that takes its place among classics. This unsentimental novel lays bare the complexities of human longing in taut, lyrical prose....literature of the highest order." Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus Christi
This essay originally appeared in the Algonquin Reader.
In December 1995, my parents took me back to Italy for the last time. They had grown up in Sant'Elpidio, a small village at the top of one of the highest mountains in the Valle Del Salto, and it was the return to this village that I most eagerly anticipated. I'd visited Sant'Elpidio and the major Italian cities as a child, but my memories were distant and dreamlike. I recalled kicking a soccer ball between two olive trees to score an imaginary goal; sticking my hand between the stone lips of the bocca della verita, the mouth of the truth; and sitting at my mother's feet over long, rambunctious feasts, begging her to translate what my relatives were saying.
In fact, my most enduring memories of Italy consisted of my mother's face smiling down at me as she smoothed my hair and retold the stories, jokes, and legends that formed the centerpiece of every family gathering. A few of the stories, she said, would have to wait until I was older; some of the jokes wouldn’t make much sense in English; but most of what my relatives discussed she faithfully and patiently recounted to me there at the table or later in the night, as I fell asleep. In that strange and beautiful world, my mother was always my guide, my voice.
We didn't go to Italy to sightsee. We went so that my mother could visit the family she'd given up to marry my father, who'd emigrated to America after World War II. We went so that my parents could introduce me to the "real" world—vivid, honest, and unspoiled—and so they could escape the harsh and colorless "new" world. We went because my mother missed her best friends, her six brothers and sisters, who were still relatively young and very much alive.
In 1995, I was a shy young man of twenty-three. I was a student of literature with the dream of becoming a writer, and I was also anxiously closeted. Compared to my parents' lives and the ones led in their ancestral village, my future seemed unchartable, unprecedented. The apparent simplicity of Sant'Elpidio, little more than a cluster of stone houses linked to other clusters by one narrow and bumpy road, bewitched me. Wandering through the village with my parents at my side, I thought, All the answers are here! If only I observed it and my mother's family closely enough, I thought, I'd understand more fully her nagging sadness, and my father's pride, and, some-how, my own inexpressible longings. By seeing where we came from, I'd find out who we were.
Night after night, we feasted. On Christmas Eve, we ate the traditional seven fishes at Zio Ernesto's and played cards and tombola late into the night; for Christmas Day we headed down the street to visit Zio Totò, the greatest of the joke-tellers; we stopped into Zia Clara's for her famous pizza sfogliata, rivaled only by Zia Carolina's crespelle; in the middle of the day we found ourselves dancing across Zia Maddalena's concrete basement door; and on Saint Stephen's Day we gathered at the home of Zio Nello, the oldest and the keeper of the family history. We were never alone. At meals, on car rides, on walks up and down the village street, my aunts and uncles surrounded us. They seemed to have one hand on my mother at all times, on her shoulder or her lap or the small of her back, as if to keep her from leaving them again.
This month of feasts did show me who we were, both as a family and as a people: we loved each other with abandon. Of all the ways of expressing love that Italians have in their repertoire, the feast, with food and stories at its center, is among the most powerful. Knowing this, seeing it up close, made me less afraid of the future. No matter what, I thought, I was rich in love and would never be poor.
Within a year of that trip to Sant'Elpidio, Zia Maddalena and Zia Clara both passed away, and my mother vowed never to go back to Italy. She couldn't bear the country without them, she told me, and so she turned her back on it completely. All This Talk of Love is about a woman much like her, someone who was born into the riches of family and then renounces it. I named her Maddalena and gave her two lives: the one she left behind in the village and the one she built with her husband and children in the United States. What would happen, I wondered, if the two lives collided?Christopher Castellani, 2012