Literary Wives: The Shoemaker’s Wife

The Shoemaker’s Wife (2012) by Adriana Trigiani is the December pick for the Literary Wives Series.  This is an ongoing series in which a group of bloggers read a book with the word “wife” in the title and then try to answer the following questions.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Please visit the following bloggers to see the full conversation about this book and to add your own thoughts.

Ariel of One Little Library

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of What Me Read

My first impressions of this book were that it was hard to get into.  It was a slow start for me, and I contemplated giving up on it; however, I have read nearly all of Trigiani’s other books, and I knew that there’s always  a treat to be had in her work, so I kept going, and I was richly rewarded.  Although the writing is simple, straightforward, and not sophisticated prose, I found joy in the story and the twists and turns of the lives of the characters.  I’ll admit, I shed a few tears in the end because I had come to love the characters and appreciate the difficulty of living and dying through their experiences.

The novel focuses on Ciro Lazarri and Enza Ravanelli, two young children from the Alps of Italy who live during the first part of the twentieth century.  They witness and experience first-hand WWI and WWII, after moving to the United States and becoming Americans. Theirs is the immigrant story, and we see the intricacies of identity and the American dream through their experiences.

shoemaker's wife

The first two-thirds of the book focus on Ciro and Enza separately, yet their paths keep crossing.  He, after a childhood with Catholic nuns because his father was dead and his mother unable to care for him and his brother, apprentices as a shoemaker in New York City.  Enza, after coming to the United States with her father in order to earn money for a family home back in Italy, becomes a seamstress for the New York Metropolitan Opera.  The two met briefly in Italy, and their paths continue to cross in New York.  As readers, we know they are meant to be together, and they seem to know it too, but much of the conflict of the narrative is composed of them being ready for each other at the wrong place and time.  However, after much anticipation, they finally marry, and Enza becomes, as the title suggests, the shoemaker’s wife.

She’s a good wife for Ciro. They are well matched, and they make a life in Minnesota together.  She is patient with his emotional issues (because of his dead father, absent mother, and WWI experiences) and she sacrifices for him.  While this sacrifice seems, from my perspective, sad for her own ambition, Trigiani frames it as a positive thing.  “For Ciro, Enza would sacrifice, fight to put food on the table, worry and fret over babies, and live life in full. She had only one life to share, and one heart to give the man who most deserved it. . . . the love of all loves was worth it” (p. 314).  Enza gives up her promising career with the opera, where she was on her way to becoming a costume designer, and follows Ciro to a place where a shoemaker is needed.  She is instrumental in building and shaping his successful business, so her talents are not wasted.  And she’s happy.  To her, love is more important than her career or marrying a richer man.

Yet her talents and abilities are appreciated, as they are what seemingly first drew Ciro to her.  He knew she was smart when they met as teenagers.  “But she had something that Ciro had not seen in any girl before—she was curious” (p. 78).  This curiosity and intelligence leads her to be successful and escape indentured servitude during her early years in the United States. I appreciated that Ciro loves this about her.

When she marries him, her friend Laura exclaims, “A man is going to put your work on a par with his? I can’t believe what I’m hearing” (p. 321).  Yet their marriage, ahead of its time and perhaps an anachronism, works that way.  Ciro tells her father, “I love her because she is so strong. It’s one of the things I most admire about her” (p. 332).  This marriage seems to represent some sort of ideal, and it was nice to read about it.  And in the end, Enza has no regrets.  Although idealized, this marriage, because of Enza’s choice in it, seems pretty great.  “Building a new life meant sacrifice, but it also meant that fulfillment and surprise would be hers, and she would have a wonderful husband to share it with. She couldn’t imagine a better reason to start over again” (p. 340).  She follows him to Minnesota and does just that.

From Ciro’s friends throughout the years, we learn other things about wives.  They must be beautiful, as his friend Luigi is determined to marry a girl with a small nose so his children will benefit from both his and hers small noses.  This is a shallow wish, but Luigi gets it, and he also ends up losing his wife later on, a tragic occurrence after their happy marriage full of children.

Other friends tell Ciro to pick a quiet girl to marry, one who would like to take care of him.  “An ambitious woman will kill you. There’s always something that needs to be done. . . . They want more, more, more” (p. 181). However, Enza and her friend Laura are often sharing advice about men as well.  There’s as much in this book about what it means to be a husband and what to look for in a husband as there is about wives.

The book is filled with gems of wisdom throughout, folksy wisdom and the secrets of life, as the characters do a lot of living within the 470 pages.  One is that the secret to happiness is to only take what you need (p. 103).  We also learn that it is possible to make your own luck and that everybody deserves a second chance (p. 181).

Because Ciro served in WWI, he ends up with cancer from the mustard gas.  This is a poignant part in the marriage, one that happens too soon, when they are only in their thirties. Ciro realizes how important his wife has always been to him.  “Enza’s mission all along had been to give Ciro comfort, and in every way, she had succeeded. . . . As always, Enza knew best” (p. 424).  And in the end, he realizes that her strength made their marriage stronger, for “she did not need him, she wanted him. Enza had chosen Ciro, forsaking her own sense of security, which he had come to know, was the need that drove her” (p. 437).

This books gives us a portrait of a nearly perfect marriage, and not because their lives were perfect, but because they truly loved each other enough to give and take.  I ended up enjoying this book, despite the slow start. I think my only complaint is that the cover art doesn’t match the story.