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The Sicilian Inheritance


The Sicilian Inheritance

Jo Piazza's THE SICILIAN INHERITANCE is about a woman who was a butcher, a restaurateur and a mother, and who apparently wasn't really good at several of those things. At first, I didn't know how I would connect with her and care about her story. But that might be part of the message that this brilliant novel imparts: that women don't need to be best friends or even like each other to help and support each other in times of need.

Sara Marsala is in the middle of a divorce and is losing her restaurant --- and, as a final blow, her much loved great-aunt Rosie has died. She worked diligently, spending long hours to try to make a success of her restaurant at the expense of everything else in her life. So when she and her husband separated, she let him stay with their daughter, Sophie, in their home while she slept in the studio over the restaurant. But now that the restaurant is closed, she has nowhere to live, and her life is in shambles. She is drinking too much and in terrible debt from her failed business. And her husband wants custody of Sophie.

During Rosie's "funeral," which is a celebration in a bar, we learn about Sara's Sicilian family. Her great-grandfather Giovanni came to the US to work hard and after years of labor was able to send for his family. His mother and his children came first, while his wife, Serafina, stayed in Sicily to sell some property. But before she could leave, she died from the flu. Since that time, she has been revered as a saintly woman, a pure and loving mother, "a martyr who had selflessly raised the children in Sicily while Giovanni built a future for them in America." Sara was actually named after her great-grandmother Serafina, but her name was shortened to Sara.

"The balancing of the past and present narratives is carefully crafted so that we see how both time periods mirror each other. Piazza brilliantly develops the story of two women who are separated by a century but are equally fierce in their determination to get seen, be respected and receive justice."

Before her death, Rosie had sent Sara an envelope with a deed to some land in their hometown of Caltabellessa in Sicily. Sara doesn't receive it until after the funeral. In the accompanying letter, Rosie tells Sara that she needs to travel to Sicily for several reasons. She asks Sara to spread her ashes in the place where she was born, to see if the deed is valid and the land is still in their name, and to investigate the death of her mother, Serafina. Rosie says she believes that Serafina might have been murdered. She had planned and paid for the whole trip, from the airfare (nonrefundable) to the accommodations. And with the closure of Sara's restaurant and her daughter on vacation with her almost-ex husband and his parents, Sara has the time. Rosie made it clear in her letter that any money from the sale of the land would be for Sara to open a new restaurant and begin a new life.

The novel is told from two points of view: Sara in the present and Serafina's story beginning in 1908. It's through Serafina's eyes that we see Caltabellessa (which is actually based on a conglomeration of small towns in Sicily, including the author's own family's historic hometown.) In Sicily at that time, women were treated as disposable entities. They had no power and, without a man, were subject to any violence or abuse that any male might choose to dole out. A widow without a brother or other male family member to protect her would live a life of fear.

In fact, there is a woman who lives alone in a shelter built in a hollowed-out cave near the top of the mountain. She is called the witch, la strega, and unlike most of the women in the town, she is educated and can read. Serafina's best friend, Cettina, takes her there when Serafina thinks she is pregnant after one weak moment with a neighborhood boy, Gio. But by the time she visits the witch, she is too far along for any medication to cause her to lose the baby. Because of Serafina’s pregnancy, her brilliance at school, her top grades, and her desire to continue her education and perhaps become a teacher mean nothing. Now she will have to marry the boy and give up any dreams of being anything but a housewife and mother.

Life for a Sicilian woman in a small town at that time is miserable. The older women don't know how to read, and in 1908, the girls were only required to attend school for four years. Most dropped out to help their mothers care for their many siblings. At 15, Serafina was the only girl left in her class, and she had big dreams. So when she had to quit school to be married, it was heartbreaking for her.

As the story progresses, we see women helping other women in both timelines. In Serafina's time, the witch tended only to the women of the town, and everything she did was in secrecy. She knew what herbs could prevent a woman from becoming pregnant or get rid of an early pregnancy. She was a healer, too. She read books and medical manuals, and received medical journals from friends she had made in the city before she returned to the small town to live.

When Sara finally arrives in Caltabellessa, even though more than a century has passed since Serafina's time, some things haven't changed. Women are still vulnerable, especially those who are alone and without male relatives to protect them. Sara is staying at a hotel run by a woman named Giusy for short (pronounced "Juicy"). Guisy becomes an important part of the story, and Piazza made her quite a colorful character. She dresses in an outrageous fashion, and she states that her husband has disappeared and won't be coming back. We don't know quite what that means until almost the end of the novel. But Guisy has a problem: she can't sell the hotel or her house next door without her husband's permission. Even though he's nowhere to be found, the men of Caltabellessa won't allow it.

As it turns out, modern-day Sicily is in many ways just as antiquated and misogynistic as the Sicily of yore. When Guisy's cousin claims the land that is in Sara's deed, the town council is the entity that will decide who owns the property. And there are foreign groups looking to purchase the land and develop it into a golf course and tourist attraction, so it could be worth a lot of money.

Sara finds out that the mafia is alive and well in Sicily. She is threatened repeatedly, ironically by the same entities that threatened her namesake a century before. Even the chief of police warns her to leave. But Sara needs the money from the land to start a new life and rid herself of debt, so she is ready to do whatever is necessary to try to claim Serafina's land. She is also determined to solve the mystery of Serafina's fate.

The narratives alternate between past and present, as we learn more about Serafina and her desire to make her life better, so that she in turn could improve the lives of those around her. She studied medicine with the witch and grew to respect her. But there are those who didn't want educated women who might question the status quo.

As the novel progresses, we see the duality of both women's circumstances, and how women in both centuries are stymied by the attitudes and prejudices of men. When women unite, when they join forces to support and protect each other, much can be overcome. When the men left Sicily for jobs in other places, the women took over. They learned to read and do math, and they worked at what had been previously considered "men's" work: baking, masonry, whatever needed to be done. And they were successful. But their proficiency meant nothing when male relatives returned and wrested back everything the women had achieved, leaving them with nothing. Instead of words of praise, they were given condemnation.

So while this story is about the abuse and degradation of women that occurred in the past and that still happens in many places in the present, in this beautifully crafted novel we also see something lovely and touching arise from such treatment --- women overcoming the odds to live life on their terms. At least when the men aren't around. And women coming together to seek justice, ensuring that at least sometimes misogyny loses. The balancing of the past and present narratives is carefully crafted so that we see how both time periods mirror each other. Piazza brilliantly develops the story of two women who are separated by a century but are equally fierce in their determination to get seen, be respected and receive justice.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on April 5, 2024

The Sicilian Inheritance
by Jo Piazza

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 0593474163
  • ISBN-13: 9780593474167