Remembering a happy childhood can bring sadness, says the narrator of Connie Guzzo-McParland’s debut novel The Girls of Piazza d’Amore, because of the “persistent ache of yearning, like the grief for a lost love.” The novel focuses on three or four families in a village in southern Italy at a moment in the 1950s when many people were leaving for a new life in North America: “‘Here, there is no avvenire’”; “‘We must leave for the sake of the children’”; “‘Four houses and four cats’—that is how we spoke about [the village of Mulirena] after we left.” Looking back, the narrator, Caterina, is certain that “I and the village women I’ve known all carry a history and worlds of stories within us.”
I reviewed the novel for Publishers Weekly, and you can read my review here. I loved Guzzo-McParland’s descriptions of special treats for the village children, “homemade cullarielli, hard doughnut-shaped cookies glazed with white sugar” and tied to the Palm Sunday olive branches with ribbon, or scirubetta on a December day: “A light blanket of snow covered the rooftops. Mother reached over Comare Rosaria’s rooftop from our kitchen window and filled a bowl with snow. She sprinkled sugar and cold coffee over it to make scirubetta for me, Luigi, and my desk-friend, Bettina, who came over every afternoon to do homework with me.”
My favourite character isn’t one of the village girls whose love stories Caterina recounts, but Professore Nucci, her father’s friend, who “wasn’t really a professor; he just liked to be called Professore,” and therefore introduces himself as one. A bachelor living with his two sisters, “He received a small stipend from the village for doing minor secretarial work, but he spent most of the day walking up and down the main street in a pensive mood, his arms behind his back, a baton in one hand. Sometimes he would stop, look up into the air, and move his head as though he were reviewing a musical score.” Not surprisingly, he also likes it when people call him Maestro.
“‘I wouldn’t go to Canada if they paid me in gold,’” he says, but another villager retorts, “‘Don’t worry, professò. They only pay for professors like you in Mulirena. Everywhere else you have to work.’”