After a break, I am back on my quest to read every book written about Italy in the English language. Up at the plate: The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily by Theresa Maggio.
Maggio, like a lot of people I know, is the descendant of Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. and settled in New Jersey. Also like a lot of us, she felt a pull to go back to where her family came from. But instead of making just a visit or two, or buying a house there, she embedded herself in different towns and villages of Sicily, often showing up in a piazza with just a name, and asking if anyone in town could put her up (every time, it worked).
The Stone Boudoir is a collection of reported essays about these towns, told by someone who is both a lyrical writer, and who also has the research and reporting chops to go into great detail about these places, including the history, politics and people. Unlike Marlena De Blasi does in A Thousand Days in Venice, which I read earlier this year, Maggio doesn’t treat the people she meets like props. They’re real, with hopes and dreams (whether they were realized or squashed).
I read most of this book on the beach in Cape Cod, but she managed to pull me out of New England and rocket me across the Atlantic, and she did so by writing about all she saw, and not just the food, which is a trap other writers have fallen into. Her recounting of the Festival of Saint Agatha in Catania had me wondering if I still had my old saint book, and if I should try to plan my upcoming trip (WHICH YES IS HAPPENING – WITH MY MOTHER!) a different saint festival in Abruzzo, where our family is from.
I’m in the thick of planning our trip (which, yes, is something to help distract me from grief), and I pulled this book off my to read pile at just the right time. Maggio manages to be an observer, but a respectful, skillful one. As I dig deeper into my Italian background (more on that in the future, when I’m ready to share), I hope that someday I can write one essay as good as those in this book.
I also learned a turn of phrase that I’m going to deploy in my real life. In one of the final parts of the book, Maggio stays with nuns in Geraci, a town 3,534 feet high on a ridge between two peaks in the Madonie Mountains. Sister Geltrude asks her if she’s married, and her age. “It is obvious that marriage was not you vocation,” the sister said.
You can keep that in your back pocket too, reader, if you need it.
Nail polish: Bed Rock & Roll by Essie.
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