I’m very iffy (and cranky) about Romances and I swear on everything sacred it has nothing to do with my apparent lack of experience in the love department. Sure, I sit down for the occasional cutesy chick-lit every now and then but I usually avoid straight-up, hardcore love stories because most of the time they end up terribly generic; it’s either too draggy and full of fluff that I get bored waiting for my tears to come out or it’s too plain melodramatic that I get bored to tears. Also, there tends to be a lot of eye-rolling involved, not to mention the guaranteed impulse to gag myself with a spoon or to barf mentally at the cringeworthy declarations of devotion. Okay, so I’ve probably grown into a soulless robot but I blame it on my having read Nicholas Sparks at age 9–I thought Romantic Fiction was nothing but alzheimerlandia where everyone is doomed in the worn-out ragged trope of falling in love and dying. Yes, I was scarred pretty bad.
I am therefore wonderfully caught off-guard by Christopher Castellani’s A Kiss from Maddalena, because it shattered all my juvenile traumas about romances. For once, no one’s dying from cancer, suffering from alzheimers, divorcing or killing each other, finding their lost parents, or are secretly vampires. It’s ironic because the plot and backdrop of the novel is in fact on a grander scale and yet the intimacy and the genuineness of the characters’ lives still resonate from cover to cover. We get a vivid first-hand account of the second world war and its aftermath in Italy—we don’t just meet a pair of lovers or a family; we meet an entire town and the many ties and traditions that binds them together. Most importantly, the book is still very much anchored around the bittersweet affair between Vito and Maddalena—probably the most passionate and saddest tale I’ve read in recent memory.
I’m not even embarrassed to admit that I still repeatedly read the last paragraphs like these are from a page torn off of a haunted love letter my soul has been wanting to write for so long. This book gives heartache a voice and oh lord, how I listened to it sing. Thank you Mr. Castellani, my faith in Romances has been completely restored.
The prologue is catchy and intriguing—essentially what all books should be right off the bat. We start right away with the book’s turning point, and the author did such a fantastic job with keeping things hanging and then letting the chapters unfold naturally in a way that will still make you wonder how, when, where, who, why and what the hell happened. The first chapters were low-key but nonetheless brilliant; Castellani’s writing is so rich and precise, minus all the fluff. See, I’ve got issues with atmospheric descriptions in novels and I’m usually impatient with introductions, but this book opened in a very fluid way that transported me when and where it happened. It’s magical and I can’t help but wish I could write like this:
In the far corner of West Olive, the trees stood so close together that the leaves made a second sky. Girls sat in circles under it and complained about their mothers. They gossiped about whoever showed up late or left early. When the army trucks swallowed up their brothers and boyfriends and young fathers, they came here to forget or cry or admit I’m glad he’s gone. After they turned twenty, they found somewhere else to talk—they got married or they leaned against the front walls of stores and acted smart—but until then, the olive grove was the center of their world.
But of course, my favorite thing about it is still the budding affection between the passionate Vito Leone and the beautiful Maddalena Piccinelli. There’s this lovely scene at the early part of the book where they’re still on the process of getting to know each other amidst their friendship with peers. It was a time of innocence, and of the carefree days of being young. In many ways, this scene felt foreboding and in turns, poignant and piercing.
“You won’t grow up,” Madallena said, her lips pursed. This was her vision of his life.
“The years will pass and the war will end,” she said, “but you will not get old…I see you running through a green field. I see you laughing, chasing a dog, everyone around you with white beards and crooked legs, with canes! But you are still young, still as much as a boy as today, forever. That is what I see for you; it is here in front of my face.”
“What does it mean?” asked Fiorella. She looked over at Vito curiously, as if she’d just seen him for the very first time.
“How do I know?” said Maddalena. “But I can tell you, it seems like a beautiful feature to me.”
It’s crazy how this book can make you symphatize with all the characters from one page to another. You don’t just read inside their heads–you wanna hold their hand. In this particular moment for instance, I can deeply identify with Maddalena’s inner thoughts before they were separated because of the bombings:
This was falling in love, she told herself. She was making it happen. You saw something about to be taken away from you, and in that moment you saw how much it was worth. She’d sneaked out of her house in the middle of the night, broken the law and betrayed her parents to come here, and that had to mean something. God had to recognize it and remember.
And then ultimately, my heart breaks for Vito, so dedicated and loyal and loving. Here’s a boy of eighteen, caught in the crossfires of war, adolescence and the travails of young love.
“Maybe I do want to scare you a little,” he said. He faced the road again, his back to her. “If I scare you, maybe you’ll think of my life sometimes, for just a little while, when you’re safe on your zia’s farm. Maybe you’ll think of my Mother’s legs that don’t work, that won’t let us leave here. Of her sleeping twenty hours a day and not recognizing me when she wakes up. I want you to think of me, Maddalena, with you not here anymore.”
How I shuddered from the inside-out. I honestly do not know how I made it alive after reading this book–I think I died a literary death, went to heaven and crashed back to earth in a dazzling thud of reality. I regret nothing. This is what all romances should be like: gripping and lingering, by all accounts, memorable—I read, I wept, I loved. God, how I crave for more.