Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: The Islands of Divine Music

Summary: The Islands of Divine Music is a novel of five generations of an Italian-American family finding its place in the New World. Against a backdrop of Immigration, Prohibition, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the new millennium, five generations of the Verbicaro family make their way from Southern Italy to San Francisco as each character brushes up against some aspect of the divine.

The family matriarch is Rosari, a little girl whose family flees Italy because her prodigality is exploited by illiterate kidnappers. After her beautiful, psychotic mother’s suicide, the girl and her despondent father come to San Francisco, where she meets the man she’ll marry, a handsome, fiercely strong peasant named Giuseppe Verbicaro. The twelve linked stories of The Islands of Divine Music are portraits of family members whose lives are interwoven in one narrative that spans 100 years.

Rosari and Giuseppe’s oldest son, Narciso, a handsome and dim-witted dandy, barely evades death and the stain of organized crime by his simple-minded innocence and luck, while his passionate brother Ludovico, a talented third baseman in the old San Francisco minor leagues, falls prey to the illicit dreams of a wise guy from the Gambino family. His scheme to smuggle Cuban cigars to the San Francisco Bay nearly ends in drowning but leads to a kind of salvation.

Their youngest brother, Joe, a brilliant child and shrewd businessman, is ashamed of his ethnicity and, in particular, his father. This is due in part to the fact that Giuseppe, wandering North Beach, believes that God directs him to marry a teen-aged, pregnant Mexican prostitute named Maria. Further senility, faith, or vermouth convinces the old man that Maria’s child, Jesus, is the product of an immaculate conception. The event is both a family disgrace and a bizarre blessing. The child’s life and tragic death come to have a profound effect on Giuseppe’s progeny, particularly Joe’s children: Penelope, who flees the country following involvement in deadly anti-Vietnam War activities, and her brothers Paulie and Angelo, who are inspired by the young Jesus to embark upon a quest of several thousand miles to recover the family’s lost and most prized spiritual treasures. -- Unbridled Books

I want to thank Libby from Unbridled Books for sending me a copy of THE ISLANDS OF DIVINE MUSIC by John Addiego. I read this book in one day because I just couldn't put it down. I quickly became caught up in the various members of the Verbicaro family; and I was fascinated by the way the author told their stories. THE ISLANDS OF DIVINE MUSIC wasn't a very long book (around 250 pages), but it definitely packed a powerful punch.

I would probably classify this book as a family saga -- each chapter told a part of the family's history from a different characters' perspective. The book covered a lot of time, around 100 years, and began with the story of Rosari and her father who immigrated from Italy to the United States. As I read this book, I got to "meet" Rosari's husband and her children, and her grandchildren. I loved how Mr. Addiego incorporated major historical events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, into the Verbicaro family's lives and allowed the reader to see how these events impacted their lives.

I was surprised to hear that this is Mr. Addiego's first novel because it is so polished. I found his writing to be so vivid yet also very magical (I know that sounds very strange, but I think it will make sense if you read the book.) As I read this book, I thought that each chapter could almost stand alone; so I wasn't surprised to find out that some of the chapters had been published as short stories. What I really appreciated was how the author was able to tie together the chapters that were written so differently. He used various references and different characters' insights into the same story to link the book -- it all just flowed so well.

Another wonderful thing about this novel was that it was both tragic and entertaining. Despite the problems the family faced, the author still incorporated a great deal of humor into this story. I especially found the chapter entitled Mr. Santa Claus to be quite entertaining. It tells the story of Mickey, a girl with Down's syndrome, who wants to sit on a department store Santa's lap. He refuses because she is too large -- of course, this devastates Mickey. A family friend of questionable integrity later brings the roughed-up Santa to Mickey's house on Christmas Eve for a personal visit. I found myself laughing many times throughout this chapter at the author's descriptions of Santa and Mickey.

While this book did tell the story of the Verbicaro family over many generations, it also had a mythical quality to it. I'm not entirely sure that I "got" all of the symbolism, but there was definitely a magical and spiritual feeling to this novel. Ultimately I felt this book was about redemption and forgiveness, but I'm almost positive that other readers will interpret different meanings from this story.

I think THE ISLANDS OF DIVINE MUSIC would make an excellent book club discussion book, especially if your group liked ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. You can read a brief excerpt to get an idea of Mr. Addiego's writing style. There is a reading guide available to help stimulate your discussion as well as a very interesting author interview.

Also reviewed at:
Diary of an Eccentric
Book Addiction


Anna said...

Great review! I also enjoyed the Santa Claus chapter. I agree about the book being polished, as well as magical. It's a very unique book, and it's now one of my favorites!

I've added the link to your review to mine here.

Diary of an Eccentric

Ti said...

I enjoy family sagas and I have heard good things about this book. Wonderful review.

Anonymous said...

I have this on my to-read stack, I think I'll move it to the top after your review!

Bookfool said...

This sounds so good. I loved Anna's review, as well. But, the thing that really grabs me is that cover. It looks magical.

Anonymous said...

I got this from LT Early Reviewers and can't wait to get to it after reading your review!