Ann Hood’s novel An Italian Wife is supposed to be a family saga, which is odd considering that it’s only 283 pages.* When I think about family sagas, I think about Lonnie Coleman and his Beulah Land trilogy. Now that’s a family saga. An Italian Wife is more like a collection of anecdotes, mostly about sex and the misery of the human experience. It is supposed to center on matriarch Josephine Rimaldi from her roots in Italy in the 1800s all the way to her death in 1974. Along the way, we meet other members of the Rimaldi family, but we are never with one character long enough to form any kind of connection to him or her, which made the book seem disjointed.
If you read the Amazon reviews of the book, which I urge you to do instead of reading the book itself, you will come away with the distinct impression that this book is 90% sex scenes. This is true. However, that’s not to say that the sex scenes don’t have a purpose; they illustrate the theme of the book. I found the theme to be something like “life is about creating a new generation and hopefully gaining some tiny bit of meaning before you pass on to whatever fate awaits you in the afterlife,” and although the main character (Josephine) was supposed to be redeemed at the end of the book, all I could think about was nihilism and futility.
I was depressed for a couple hours after I read the book, and I was strongly reminded of an illustration of human history that I had seen on Tumblr (warning—it’s NSFW). The only constants in the timeline are war, sex, and death, which is more or less the basics of humanity in a nutshell. I don’t believe An Italian Wife adequately portrayed the fact that human beings do in fact have souls, as it spent more time discussing the characters’ sex lives than the good things they did in life or their innermost thoughts and feelings. The only character who showed any spiritual growth or development was Chiara, who became a religious sister, but the book mostly discredited religion by relying on the tired cliché of the immoral, philandering priest.
As for the big Italian family the book was supposed to portray… there were some scenes of that, but they weren’t scenes of happiness or love or “la dolce vita” (as one reviewer on Goodreads said). There was always an undercurrent of unease or dissatisfaction, and yes, I understand that family gatherings aren’t always totally happy, but there could have been at least some upbeat moments to balance out the darkness in the rest of the book.
The only good things I can say about An Italian Wife were (1) it made me think quite a bit about life and the human condition, (2) it was a very fast read, and (3) the writing itself was lovely—the author is clearly very skilled. Skip this one. You’ll be glad you did.
*Although the more I thought about it, I considered that the shortness of the book might reflect the theme: life goes by quickly, and it’s over before you know it.