Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1943. The Nazis have invaded Italy; American troops have landed. At Aldo's restaurant on the Adriatic coast, Lucia Fantini entertained customers for years with her marvelous opera singing. But normal operations are over. The restaurant has been seized by nazifascisti, and a Resistance squad of waiters and local tradesmen has been formed, led by Lucia's son, Beppino. When Beppino disappears, Lucia must journey across war-devastated Italy to find him. Aided by a richly drawn cast of characters, the story of her adventures is told with the vigor, drama, and lyrical grace of an Italian opera, in a brilliantly arranged narrative that places tragic events side-by-side with high comedy, domestic intrigues, and gripping details. In this captivating story of a mother and son, Cooney enters a world of peril and chance, and brings to life the extraordinary Resistance movement of the Italian people.
About the Author
Ellen Cooney is the author of six previous novels. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Literary Review, and Glimmer Train, among many other publications. The recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, she taught creative writing at Boston College, MIT, Harvard and the University of Maine. A lifelong resident of Massachusetts, she now lives in midcoast Maine.
Reading Group Guide
is a novel taking place in wartime, yet scenes of destruction and horror are often juxtaposed with flashes of comedy and a light, almost whimsical humor. Do you find that the comic elements dramatize a way of coping with the reality of one's life and surroundings in constant peril? Is the author saying something about a basic human survival mechanism?
2. How do the elements of opera function in the course of the novel? There's a large and colorful cast, highly charged drama, intrigue, adulterous love, family love and conflict, and even the novel-equivalent of a libretto. In a practical sense, how do the songs function for the “lady with the voice at Aldo's,” Lucia Fantini?
3. The essence of Lucia's identity, and of her life, is her voice as a musical instrument, yet her relationship with her powers is complicated. Is she sympathetic for her failure to create a professional, onstage career? She is hugely important to the people of her region, and to the restaurant as well, not only in a financial way—does she see herself as something of a failure? How crucial is it to the novel that the narration is first person? How do Lucia's descriptions of her performances apply to her role with the partisans?
4. Ellen Cooney's novels are highly varied in their subjects, but there is always a center of the act of creative endeavor, not only in art, but in daily life. Lucia Fantini is an artist figure, but what about the creative powers of the partisans? How much of the boldness and courage to become resistance fighters begins within the mind and soul of each partisan?
5. At the heart of the novel is a story about a mother and son, Lucia and Beppi. When Lucia learns that Beppi went off on his own to carry out a dramatic act of resistance to the nazifascisti, she gets mad at him. She wonders what kind of a partisan he is, not telling his mother about it, and then rushing off into hiding. Do you find this reaction encapsulating the feeling of any loving mother, or do you feel it's particular to Lucia and Beppi and the war?
6. How does the novel investigate the dynamics of non-military people choosing to become involved in resistance activity? Or, feeling they don't have a choice? How much of the spirit behind the impulse to form a partisan squad is uniquely Italian? Most of the partisans do not feel political about what they're doing. What do you see as their true motivation?
7. Were you familiar before this novel with the region of what now called Emilia-Romagna? How is the sense of place put to use? Were you aware of the widespread effects of the American bombardment of the region in World War II? Which scenes of wartime devastation stayed with you most when you had finished reading the novel? Which scenes of tenderness? Which of comedy?
8. Lambrusco opens as a conventional novel but quickly becomes unpredictable. As narrator, Lucia never knows what's going to happen next, or who will turn up. Did you find that this method of narration drew you into the events so that, as reader, you were living Lucia's life alongside her?
9. What's your reaction to Annmarie Malone? What kind of a person is she? What's she doing there? How do you feel about the hospital scene with her and Lucia? How does the author create impressions of the Americans in Italy? Did you feel you were reading from an Italian point of view?
10. How does Lambrusco resemble, or not resemble, other novels of World War II in Europe?
11. How do you see Lucia's relationship with Aldo? With Ugo Fantini? What is your feeling about Beppi falling in love with a woman who is deaf?
“A writer with style and heart.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Ellen Cooney's mesmerizing new novel, Lambrusco.