"The Miracles of Santo Fico"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 29, 2003)
"For the first time the priest saw the size of the group waiting --- there were about a dozen strangers and at least twice that many villagers. Apparently when the tourists departed the restaurant, the curious villagers followed them and those who were mid-meal just brought their plates of food and glasses of wine with them."
Just looking at the cover of this debut novel was enough to make me want to crawl inside the pages, and then as I began to read, the vivid images of the people and the place I so wanted to stay among the villagers residing in this forgotten and out-of-the-way town on the Tuscany coast.
One summer, when Leo, Marta, Franco and Topo were teenagers and the best of friends, they decided that people shouldn't bypass their little town. Surely tourists would want to pay money to see and hear a (somewhat embellished) story about the Miracle and the Mystery in Father Elio's blessed little church. And so, when Leo and Franco approached Father Elio (Marta's Uncle) about bringing "pilgrims" into his church, he agreed it would be a fine idea, assuming that anyone did happen on Santo Fico, which would be a miracle in itself. Unbeknownst to Father Elio, Leo and Franco (or so it is assumed it was they) took care of this problem by changing a few road signs and rerouting tourists on their way to such places as Riva Del Sole or Punta Ala into their little town of Santo Fico. These lost tourists would stop in front of the Albergio di Santo Fico, a hotel and restaurant run by Marta's father, and young Leo would step in and begin to tell his wonderful story about the Miracle and the Mystery -- and to Father Elio's further surprise, people donated a good amount of money to see these wonders.
But all this came to an abrupt end when a government man came into town and threatened Marta's father, as the owner of the only viable business in town, with jail time if he should alter the road signs again. So once again, Father Elio's church kept the secret of the Miracle and the Mystery to itself and the town continued its slow decay.
So on this day, so many years later, when a stray sightseeing bus crawls its way up the long cliff road into Santo Fico and then slowly circles around the empty piazza -- and its marble fountain topped with a smiling cherub tipping a jug that long ago poured water into the now empty fountain -- and then stops in front of the Albergio Di Santo Fico, it is all that Topo needs to send him on a run to alert his old friend Marta of the impending guests. And then once he assesses the situation between the tour guide and the strangers (while sipping a free glass of wine), he is off in search of his other childhood friend, Leo.
Things change very little in Santo Fico, a place where residents do not concern themselves with the future when "they had better things to do -- like spending a cool evening at a verandah table with a friend, a glass of wine, and domino tiles, debating winds and cloud formations -- or like sitting at their open windows studying how distant lightening storms changed the blues of the Tyrrhenian Sea." But of course teenage kids do grow up and more often than not have children of their own.
Marta once a delightful young girl is now bitter and angry. She's widowed and raising two teenage daughters alone. Their father-- her husband--was Franco, her childhood friend. The truth of her marriage was revealed to her when Franco died from a motorcycle accident with a mistress on the back of his bike.
For reasons that do not become clear until much later, Leo and Marta have been estranged ever since the night before her wedding when Leo went to her bedroom and Marta threw him off the balcony, never to speak to him again. Having lost his friendship with both Franco and Marta, Leo set off for America where he lived for the next twenty years. He returns now only to sell off the vineyard estate left to him by his parents. At this point in the book, we do not have a very favorable picture of Leo and it seems that the whole town, not just Marta, wishes he'd never returned. Topo, whose real name is Guido, but because he is small and mouse-like has always had the Spanish nickname for mouse, is the neutral party among the three remaining "friends." Topo, like Marta, never left Santo Fico and inherited his father's fix-it shop.
Topo finds Leo, which is itself a colorful scene, and Leo agreeing with Topo's assessment has now to surmount Marta as obstacle to getting into the restaurant to interact with the tourists. Mind you, the restaurant is not only filled with the busload of strangers, but with all the townspeople as well. Leo naturally manages and once he begins retelling of his version of the history of Santo Fico's Miracle and Mystery, he even surprises himself. It works and these English tourists offer a huge amount of money to see the church. So now Leo has to approach Father Elio whom he hasn't had the decency to see since his return to Santo Fico.
Adding to the dynamics of this story is Marta's travails with her teenage daughter Carmen. As we meet mother and daughter through Topo's eyes, he observes that though Carmen may have intoxicating powers, she was still a facsimile of her mother, who holds the real womanly charms. He compares Carmen to the headwaters of a river; "fresh and fast, crashing and cascading impatiently through rocky chasms as if it can't wait to get to the next turn it's course might take." Marta is the same river only wide and deep. "Time had run a longer course with Marta and she had experienced enough unexpected turns and twists to stop counting on the promise of the next bend." Both beauties, but Carmen is beginning to use her looks to purposely get what she wants from men and boys. One such is the greasy boy who delivers mail to Santo Fico twice a week. Marta fears for Carmen, but as her mother, seems powerless to stop her.
Marta's other and younger daughter is Nina. We see Nina through the eyes of the strangers eating in Marta's restaurant:
"But it is only when Nina crossed the room with slow and deliberate steps, and then stood at each table to serve them their basket of fresh bread, that the strangers discovered Nina's most remarkable feature. It was then that they could gaze into the most beautiful blue eyes any of them had ever beheld. Nina's remarkable eyes captured the color of spring sky, only more distant; the color of the Aegean Sea, only deeper; the chilling watery blue of ice, only colder. But it was only as her hand nimbly crept around the tray searching out the next straw basket that they realized for sure that those remarkable eyes were sightless."
Without giving away anymore of the story with its multitude of events and its beautiful images and its charismatic characters, lets just say that it turns out that there are quite a few little mysteries to this forgotten town; such as why the fountain is dry, what is the great sin that Father Elio committed, and of course, the whole thing between Marta and Leo. All villagers are interconnected in this story including Maria Gamboni and her missing husband, the man with a dog sitting at the fountain, and Angela Giancarlo a woman who once left Santo Fico to become an actress. There are numerous miracles, too. Though most are manmade, there is little doubt that there is a magical quality to this town (and novel) that lends one to believe that a higher power is at hand to help restore the town and its residents. This beautiful novel concludes on a pleasant note with the conflicts creatively resolved, often humorously. The after memories of this novel leave us with the happy sunny feeling just like this Tuscan town. And, before anyone jumps to conclusions about Father Elio's sin, refreshingly, it is nothing at all to do with our current headlines. If only all sins could be this unfettered in its absolution.
- Amazon readers rating: from 40 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Miracles of Santo Fico at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Miracles of Santo Fico (January 2003)
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- Reading Group Guide for The Miracles of Santo Fico
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