FICTION: A family struggles in the wake of a teenager’s suicide and a mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
Christopher Castellani’s third novel, “All This Talk of Love,” illuminates the sources and results of human feeling. His complex characters prove how deeply and expansively moral people think about their lives. Fifty years before the events of the narrative, Antonio Grasso married Magdalena and brought her to the United States. The young bride said goodbye to her parents, siblings and the little village of Santa Cecilia, Italy. Settling in Delaware, the couple produced a daughter named Prima, and, two years later, a son named Tony. Early in the book we learn that the son has died, and soon Castellani reveals that Tony took his own life at age 14.
In a futile attempt to console themselves, Antonio and Magdalena have another child, a son named Frankie. Now, Frankie is doing postgraduate work at a college in Boston.
Castellani notes: “Frankie has seen a hundred pictures of Tony, heard his voice on the one audiotape that survives, been reminded many times of the little boy’s energy and piano playing and love for [the family restaurant], but he can’t summon much love for his brother beyond the theoretical.”
Frankie’s actions, relationships and thoughts constitute a major thread in the novel.
For years, Prima, married and the mother of four sons, has observed that her parents are aging. This realization prompts her generous offer to plan and bankroll a trip to Italy for the entire extended family. “All her life Prima has put her faith in the grand gesture,” Castellani writes. The adventure is mostly for Magdalena, who left Santa Cecilia in the midst of a painful feud with her sister. Magdalena, who has always refused to talk about her past, clearly harbors bitter feelings. We are not surprised when she refuses to make the trip. Frankie is cynical and dubs the proposed excursion “Prima’s Forced March/Sentimental Journey.”
In her tiny leather skirts, flashy jewelry and expensive haircuts, Magdalena belies her 72 years. She takes dance lessons and seldom cooks. But she needs “one pill to sleep and another to wake up.” Her behavior grows increasingly eccentric.
Midway through the novel, we read that Magdalena has been experiencing “spells,” episodes that have not gone unnoticed by Prima and Antonio. The chilling manifestations of Alzheimer’s devastate husband and daughter. Magdalena has placed a carton of cream in the closed shelves of a living-room credenza; she has served wine in filthy goblets. Most disconcertingly, she has said to her husband, “Who are you?” In light of this, Prima and Antonio are more determined than ever for Magdalena to return to her birthplace.
Castellani’s book is a riveting portrayal of a decent family spinning in a vortex of love, loss, hope and memory.
Katherine Bailey also reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Bloomington. Visit her at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.