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.


21 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Shoemaker’s Wife

Add yours

  1. I love your insights, Emily! You wrote of many things I had noted, but didn’t include in my own review. I so agree about Enza being a strong woman and loved it when Ciro realized it was the fact she wanted him and didn’t need him that helped make their marriage so strong! I totally agree that this book had much to say about husbands, perhaps just as much as it did about wives; I felt it concentrated on spouses collaborating as partners. So glad you stuck it out and found it a worthwhile read!

    1. Yeah, this one was definitely about marriage, rather than just prescriptions for wifehood. I think it was a little too idealized, but I enjoy a corny read every once in a while! 🙂

  2. Maybe if I’d read some of Trigiani’s other books, I would have had patience with it, but I didn’t get to the rewarding part, Emily and Lynn, so I finally did quit reading. I don’t have any insights to share today, I guess. I just felt uninterested in the characters and finally decided that I didn’t want to spend any more time with them.

    1. Oh man! I’m sorry. I can totally understand, as I almost did that myself. Was it the writing style that put you off? I really didn’t like the style, but the story somehow hooked me toward the end.

      1. The style didn’t help, but I just didn’t find the characters inherently interesting. It didn’t seem to me that Trigiani was making much effort to make us understand them or like them. Maybe that changed later, but I just found myself really frustrated with the book and feeling like I was wasting my time. If it hadn’t been such a long one, I probably would have tried to finish just for the club.

  3. Emily, I love this line as it sums up a perfect marriage beautifully: “And in the end, he realizes that her strength made their marriage stronger, for ‘she did not need him, she wanted him.'” The book seems interesting. BTG

      1. Emily, not totally off subject, but I took the occasion of Ray Rice’s NFL suspension being overturned to highlight the words from Alice Cooper’s poignant and troubling song called “Only Women Bleed.” The post notes the life a wife did envision when she marries an abusive husband. I would love your thoughts. BTG

  4. The fact that the cover art didn’t match the story was my very first complaint! I was so glad that it didn’t, though. The beginning was slow, but I also quite liked getting to know the characters as children. Ciro’s life with the nuns especially interested me. And, I liked that the story went on and on, with one thing after another happening to one or the other of them. I liked that most of the story was about them as individuals, and not about them as a couple.
    I loved your inclusion of bits of wisdom that you found throughout the book. She really did pack a lot of stuff in there. Are her other books the same way?
    As you and Kay were pointing out, there is a lot in here about husbands and marriages, as well as wives. I think one of the reasons their marriage worked out so well is that they wanted the same things out of it. They were both interested in having a family and working together. Lynn pointed out the fact that Enza would have probably ended up a very different wife if she had married Vito, which made me wonder if husbands views about their wives matter as much as a wife’s view of herself?

    1. Yes, I think Trigiani’s other books have the same sort of didactic quality, but it has been a few years since I’ve read anything by her. I love your question about a wife’s view of herself versus her husband’s view. I think a wife’s view of herself is much more self-conscious than a husband’s view of her or himself would be. I’m reminded of the idea of “double consciousness” in which women know what it is like to be a woman, but they also know what it is like to be a man because they live in a man’s world by his rules and therefore have put themselves in a man’s shoes every day. Men don’t necessarily do that or have to do that. I think we see some of this reflected in Ciro and his inability to reach out to Enza when she is ready. He doesn’t seem to understand. I was also annoyed at the double standards, with him sleeping around and being a cad while she was miraculously saved from rape by her friend. It seemed there was an underlying message about purity and how it only applies to women.

      1. I love that “double consciousness” idea. I wonder if it is a result of women’s history of being oppressed by men, or if it is a result of women just being better at putting themselves in other’s shoes?
        I was annoyed by Ciro’s behaviour, too. And, wondered why Enza and Vito were kept from sleeping together even though they were together for a long time before getting married. It didn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem to make sense, either, that Vito would have been so patient. Courtships didn’t usually go on for that long a hundred years ago.

  5. It sounds like you’ve finally found a ‘wife book’ that talks about partnership and mutual fulfillment in marriage. I might actually put this one on my list. And I like Naomi’s question above, if husbands views about their wives matter as much as a wife’s view of herself, and how that impacts a marriage. Good food for thought.

  6. I’m a big fan of Adriana Trigiani and enjoyed this book as much as the others. I recently read another “wife” book that I will be recommending on an upcoming blog post about my favorite books of the year. It’s called An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore. You might like it.

  7. I do own another Trigiani book, and I was debating whether I wanted to read it, but if you like her other books, I’ll probably give it a try. I think you brought up a great point about Enza being strong and not needing Ciro–I noticed that, but got caught up in other things, so I’m glad you mentioned it. It was rare that her work was made as important as his, and her work was valuable to their family. I liked that she had the freedom to pursue business interests on her own, and was very successful at them. Great review!

    1. I read her other books so long ago, that I wonder now if I would still like them, especially given my reaction to this one’s writing style. So don’t take my word for it! That was my younger self talking…

  8. I finished this book a few weeks ago – did you give it to me? I also noticed the cover art issue. Maybe it’s supposed to represent her costuming work for the opera?

    It was a simple story, written in a very plain style of prose, but I saw it as reflecting the manner of speech you might expect from two immigrants to the U.S. I particularly loved how Trigiani explained her own family connection to this story and her heritage coming from the same mountain region as her characters. To me, it made perfect sense that Enza and Ciro would fit together so well. There’s no one who could appreciate your values, quirks, and flaws as much as someone from your own hometown.

    1. I agree. Their hometown connection was a nice touch, and I can see how it would draw them together. I did NOT give this to you, but it sounds like whoever did knew that you would like it. 🙂

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