Islands of the Divine Music by John Addiego

“For most of her life, for nearly one hundred years, Rosari referred to 1906 as the year of the three catastrophes: the Great San Francisco Earthquake, her father’s surrender to catarrh, and her marriage to Guiseppe Verbicaro.” [25]

Islands of the Divine Music is the whimsical and sometimes fantastical story of the origins and subsequent generations of the Verbicaro family. The story starts in Italy with the soon to be matriarch Rosari Cara, a young Italian girl who has been taught how to read, and goes on to unwittingly assist two illiterate kidnappers in committing a crime by writing their ransom note. To escape the consequences of Rosari’s crime, the family flees to the United States where in 1906 Rosari meets and marries Guiseppe Vebicaro, the man who would “love and abandon and confound her for fifty years.” The story alternates through the lives of Guiseppe and Rosari’s children and grandchildren, each with their own talents and weaknesses. In this way the novel covers a lot of ground:the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, war and its effects on soldiers, the American obsession with baseball, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Italian American families and their dealings with the mob. There is a little bit of everything.

I was really pulled in reading about the Verbicaro family, and I finished this book over the course of a single day.The writing is beautiful and descriptive and right away intriguing things are happening. There is a lot about salvation and redemption woven in every corner of the book; from the very beginning when Rosari’s father forgives her mother’s infidelity to the surprising ending, forgiveness is a huge theme throughout. The story evolves like a collection of short stories, each can stand on its own, but each one also adds color and nuances to all the others. You know something by reading one story but as you  read the others, a fuller picture develops- which is very clever. Dates are not readily given, so you have to work a little to piece together the story through events as they occur at different places within the stories. I have mixed feeling about this. I liked it because of the mystery it provided, but it also left me with a feeling of uneasiness. I couldn’t quite get my footing amidst all the people and swirling details.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this story.  Addiego is a wonderful writer- his characters rich and interesting, and the details of their stories are convincing and intriguing. I was especially moved by the story of Maria, the Mexican migrant worker and her son Jesus.  Their story was exquisite and heartbreaking. It was also interesting to see the way Joe reacted to his family’s Italian roots and the changes that he tried to effect in his life based on his feelings.  The danger inherent in writing from the perspective of so many different characters is that as the number of them increases the less likely you are to be interested in them all, and I encountered that problem. The section on baseball for me was very long, and the adventure at the end was a little odd, but I did like what it led to very much, though it was sudden. The wonderful writing carried me through this fresh and interesting novel and I look forward to reading more of Addiego’s work.

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