Day 620: Literary Wives! The Shoemaker’s Wife

Cover for The Shoemaker's WifeToday is another meeting of Literary Wives, where a group of bloggers get together and review a book about being a wife. If you have read this month’s book and would like to participate, leave comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

One thing I can say about The Shoemaker’s Wife. It provoked discussion in our household. After reading the novel’s first two paragraphs to my husband, I asked, “Does this qualify as purple prose?” and he answered, “It’s at least very mauve.” In any case, the novel is packed with labored metaphors, some of which leave us readers with very odd mental images—for example, a comparison of the Alps to silver daggers.

The novel is based on the story of Trigiani’s grandparents, a couple who met as teenagers in the Italian Alps and then were separated by circumstances for years. I haven’t read any of Trigiani’s other books, but along with many other writers these days, she doesn’t seem to understand in this novel that making things happen to her characters doesn’t automatically make readers care what happens to them. Her characters have traits, but they don’t have any emotional depth, so we don’t care about them.

A specific example of this comes early in the book, when the girl Enza’s little sister dies. Abstractly, the death of a child is sad, but since we barely know Enza and we just met Stella a few paragraphs before she died, we don’t feel much about it. If we had a sense of the child or the older sister, we would care more.

I was unable to finish this book, so I can’t answer the usual Literary Wives questions about it. Realizing I was not enjoying it at all, I decided to read a quarter of it and if I still felt like I was wasting my time, to stop. It is a very long book, so I read about 120 pages, and Ciro and Enza had just met by then, with Ciro banished to America immediately after. When I quit reading, Ciro was on the ship to New York. So, no answers to questions about how wives are depicted in this book, not even about the main character’s mothers. Ciro’s mother abandons her sons at a convent at the beginning of the book because she can’t support them and is never seen again, and Enza’s mother is a vaguely drawn figure who simply works hard.

All novels aren’t character driven, but for me there has to be something that makes a novel interesting besides the plot. Sometimes it’s the voice of a compelling character, sometimes a puzzle, sometimes a fascination with the subject or world view being described, but it has to be something.

Literary Wives logoWhile I’m writing this, I’m thinking of examples, about how Agatha Christie could create a distinct character in a few sentences, not a nuanced one, but a distinct one nevertheless. I’m thinking how in The Secret Garden we immediately recognize Mary as an unlikable child, but we can see how the fear of waking to find everyone gone from her home in India has made her more demanding, and we sympathize. I’m thinking of how hard I cried when Beth died in Little Women. And I’m thinking how fascinated I was by 18th century Japan in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

Read along with us in February, when we will be reading and commenting on The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Caroly Erickson.

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13 thoughts on “Day 620: Literary Wives! The Shoemaker’s Wife

  1. Geri, The History Lady December 1, 2014 / 9:29 am

    Hi – I enjoyed the book overall, and i thought the brothers were well drawn characters, but the mother felt a little shrouded in mist and I wanted more about her — felt a bit like a missing piece, even though she comes back (spoiler alert). Was good not great book.

  2. Naomi December 1, 2014 / 10:02 am

    Ha! Her flowery language got to you more than it got me, I guess. I was able to look past it to the interesting parts. Because it is not the type of book I normally read, I was curiously interested in what was happening to the characters. Also, because I knew it was a big book (and was worried I wouldn’t like it based on the cover), I started off slow, reading it as my second book. But once I got farther along, and more invested, it became my primary book, and I was happy to read it and see what would happen. I am very thankful that the characters did not think about each other all the time. Mostly, they just got on with their own lives.

    • whatmeread December 1, 2014 / 10:39 am

      I guess I didn’t get to the interesting parts. Ooh! Bad me!

      • Naomi December 1, 2014 / 11:27 am

        Oh, well. Next time! 🙂

      • whatmeread December 1, 2014 / 11:32 am

        I hope so, although the Kirkus Reviews mention doesn’t give me much confidence.

  3. whatmeread December 1, 2014 / 10:07 am

    Emily, I think, also commented on the slow start. I guess I just wasn’t as patient with it as you two. Maybe if I hadn’t been irritated by the language, I would have stuck with it longer.

  4. Emily J. December 1, 2014 / 10:27 am

    Great point on the prose! You made me think that perhaps the author made the mistake of telling rather than showing, while the other books you highlighted, in which we become attached to and familiar with the characters immediately, are showing us rather than telling. So, purple prose? I’ve never heard that phrase before. Can you explain it to me?

  5. Ariel Price December 1, 2014 / 9:28 pm

    I love your husband’s description of the prose as “mauve.” I agree, although I did like a lot of the imagery. I thought it was creative, at least. Sorry you didn’t like it that much! I’m still debating whether I want to try reading her other books.

    • whatmeread December 2, 2014 / 7:30 am

      Tell me what you think. I’m sorry, I read your posting from the email yesterday, but I forgot to post on it last night. I’ll try to remember to do it tonight!

  6. Lynn December 2, 2014 / 1:57 pm

    I’m really sorry you didn’t enjoy this one at all! 😦 I have decided that you and I definitely have very different tastes in reading material and writing style(s). And…I think that is really cool since we typically present varied perspectives and reactions to the books we review. I often feel you and I represent the extremes with the other hosting bloggers’ reactions falling somewhere between us. What you didn’t like about this book, I really liked! (No shock there, huh? lol) And I apologize for not stopping by your blog yesterday, but I rather assumed you didn’t post a review since you’d not finished the book… (And I didn’t receive an email about your posting, but I should have… Huh.) And thank you, Ariel, for asking about purple prose, since I’d never heard that phrase either! I loved virtually all of it, purple or mauve! I read Big Stone Gap and loved it, and the book club I facilitate selected it to read next year. Though I believe that book is quite different from this one… Needless to say, I’m anxious to read the others in the BSG series. Maybe you’ll love the next and I won’t be able to finish reading it, Kay! 😉

    • whatmeread December 2, 2014 / 2:09 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Lynn. I just assume that different people are going to have different reactions to books. It’s funny because I once had one friend react so strongly to a book that I highly recommended, as if I had mortally offended her by recommending it. I’ve noticed as I got older, and especially as I’ve been keeping this blog, I have been trying to read books that are better and I have been more conscious of things like writing style and technique. I’ve also noticed a lot of authors lately not making much effort to write fully developed characters, and I think that’s what bugged me about this one, much more so than the style, which irritated me but I could live with. I probably would have tried to finish it if it hadn’t been fairly long. But I don’t like the assumption that just because an author makes things happen to the characters we’re going to necessarily care about them. I felt more effort was needed in the beginning of the novel to make them seem like fully formed people. Some authors are able to do that very quickly, to write with such a distinctive voice that you feel like you’re reading about a real person almost immediately. With others it takes more time. Maybe I would have felt more about these characters if I had read on, but I just couldn’t make myself do it. Maybe Trigiani was struggling with the people she was writing about being real people. I think that happens often. I love Georgette Heyer’s silly regency romances and her mysteries, even though they are highly predictable (the one character you don’t like is the murderer), but she wrote some straight historical novels about real people that seem stiff in comparison. So, maybe I would like her Stone Gap books better, but I have to admit that I’m not planning on trying one anytime soon!

      • Lynn December 4, 2014 / 5:19 pm

        If I felt about this one the way you do, I wouldn’t try reading any others she’s written.

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