Italy, in all its charms, lends itself very nicely to romantic quotes, soft-focus photos of rolling landscapes, and Facebook “stories” that make our friends back home jealous. But if you crave a deeper connection, like I do, it’s the real stories that touch us much deeper than easy sentimentality.
I’ve consumed more of these tales over the last twelve or thirteen years than I can count; both fiction and non-fiction. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a better story about Italy, Italian culture, and the Italian-American experience than The Stonecutter’s Aria, by Carol Faenzi.
This award-winning historical novel is based on the true stories of Carol’s marble-carving, opera-singing ancestors who emigrated over 100 years ago from Carrara, Italy, the site of the most famous white marble quarries in the world. It’s a universal story of hope and heartache, separation and reunion, brutality and beauty. An intimate portrayal of the author’s family and how their courage dramatically changed the course of her own life generations later.
It is my honor to have her on the podcast today, where we talk about Italian ancestors, artisans, opera singers, and our mutual affection for Italian history and culture.
Writing About Italian Ancestors
So what makes this book so good? Well, the plot itself is compelling. Yes, we’ve all read about the immigrant struggle before, but this one feels so personal, as we get inside the head of the main characters in a first-person stream of consciousness narrative that allows us to simultaneously feel the emotion of Carol’s ancestors on a thrilling journey from Tuscany to the New World and back again. And I love the connection Carol has with her long-deceased family members, and how they reached across generations to help the great-granddaughter that they never knew.
Then there’s the music. Throughout the story there are the ever-present arias of Puccini; the works that solidified the art form on a global stage, making it an enduring part of human history, not just that of Italy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we wouldn’t still be listening to opera today if it weren’t for the likes of Madama Butterfly, La boheme, and of course, Tosca. The arias from these operas become another character in the book, playing a supporting role for our protagonists, and providing a musical score that injects another layer of emotion to the storyline.
Another writer, Ross King, whose books I’ve also read (including Brunelleschi’s Dome, and Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling) said about the book, “An utterly charming tale, an immigrant’s song that tells the history of a family as well as that of a whole century. Whether writing about the marble quarries of Carrara or the construction of famous American landmarks, Carol Faenzi elevates social history to the realms of poetry. The Stonecutter’s Aria is an Italophile’s delight.”
Poetry, indeed. And in the end, THAT is what makes this book so damn good: exceptional writing. Thank goodness, because such a beautiful story deserves equally beautiful writing.
In many ways, Carol’s story mirrors my own. During a sabbatical from a busy corporate career, Carol bought a one way ticket to Tuscany, her ancestral homeland…a journey that dramatically changed her life. She was inspired by the tales told by her grandmother, Olga, while she stirred the pot of polenta in the kitchen, listening to Pavarotti on the stereo.
Years later, she made another odyssey to Italy. Sometime after her grandmother’s passing, caught in a stressful and soulless corporate career, she took her journals and started writing down her stories. The bravery of ancestors who crossed the threshold into an unknown new world inspired her to change h...