Lambrusco, by Ellen Cooney, is an excellent and compelling study of life during the Nazi invasion of Italy, told by the protaganist, Lucia Fantini, widow of Aldo. It is a very descriptive novel, filled with fantastic characters, all varied in thought, physical appearance and personality.
At times, due to the content and amount of individuals, it is difficult to try to keep track of who is who in the scheme of the story, but Cooney makes that a little easier for us by listing the characters and their place in the story on a separate page, before the story begins.
Lucia is at the forefront of everyone, and her presence emanates strength and assertiveness. Lucia is caught up in trying to find her son Beppi, who blew up a German tank and immediately went into hiding. She is upset, not only because she doesn’t know where he is, but upset more due to the fact that he blew up the tank and didn’t tell her!
Thinking such as that is what fills this book with humor and poignancy combined. That is one of the strengths of the writing. The story shows us how laughter can seep through the darkness of war. Talk about unique perspectives and story lines, Lambrusco has them both.
Lucia is an opera singer in her seaside restaurant. She would sing in the restaurant, attracting villagers from miles around. Her music filled their souls, while the food and Lambrusco wine filled their stomachs.
She smuggled guns and other items for them, both into and out of the restaurant, hidden in her purse or her coat pocket, hidden by scarves, etc. She would take them by train to the partisans. With the war as a backdrop for the book, we are given descriptive word images of how the Italians band together in order to fight off the “nazifascisti” and survive as they travel through farmlands, from city to village, back again.
Lucia reflects on her life, her deceased husband who she believes watches over her and speaks to her. Much of her narrative is seen through her reflections on the past, her thoughts for the future, and also through her fantasies and dreams. She dreams of singing and of imaginary operas, she dreams of Caruso, Fellini films, of great opera singers debating with each other over who sings better. Her world is filled with fantasy and humor, and these dreams are what keep her alive, as they constantly play and resound in her head.
Cooney infuses comic relief within the confines of war-torn Italy in a most effective manner, and she knows just where to insert it. She never undermines or sweetens the devastation of war. It is not only the German occupation they are surviving from, but also the American bombings in Italy, ruining everything from factories to churches and homes in the landscape.
Lucia is struggling, herself, and Lambrusco is her journey, not only of survival, but journey of finding ones’ Self. Much of Lucia’s attitude, and the attitudes of the Italian villagers, stems from suspicions and their beliefs in legends myths, superstitions, concoctions, and ghosts that appear to them.
Cooney is excellent in weaving the various family tapestries, friendships and stories together. Her writing is rich with characters, and with a landscape embellished with ravages of war. It is a beautifully written metaphor for love of family and friends, for humanity and responsibility, and concern for each member of the community, as each one is a piece of the whole.
Lambrusco is often filled with comical interactions, but beneath the comedy lies a poignant and serious account of Italy during World War II. Ellen Cooney writes with sensitivity to the ramifications of war, demonstrating not only cognizance, but also historical importance of events of the time period..