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Via Roma by Mary Melfi

Reviewed by Caroline Vu

Is it still possible, in this day and age, for respected female writers to portray women as hopelessly dependent on the affection of men? Yes, if they are gutsy enough to buck trends. Mary Melfi, the Italian-Canadian author of 12 books and the recipient of the 2010 Giornata Internazionale della Donna Award, is one such woman. An accomplished author, Melfi no longer worries about reviews, ratings or book sales. She writes for the sheer joy of writing. Not politically correct? Well, so what?

Melfi’s latest novel, Via Roma: Between 2 Worlds, 2 Men published by Guernica Editions, revisits themes found in her earlier works. Love-equals-bondage, sex-equals-death, have been obsessing Melfi throughout her writing career. In her first novel A Dialogue with Masks (1985), Melfi bluntly stated “Let’s face it: sex and death are married to each other. They have to be... Adam and Eve decided that sex was worth dying for.” Such straight talk still dominates in ‘Via Roma’ but the prose has mellowed somewhat with time. “A tongue works wonder. You don’t have to die to go to heavens; an orgasm will do just as nicely” we are told in Melfi’s latest work.

Via Roma tells the story of Sophie Wolfe, a young Anglo Montrealer struggling with her insecurities. As the only child of a sexually liberated, career-driven-single mom, Sophie suffers greatly. “Who is my father?” she constantly pesters her mother, but that’s a question even Mom can’t answer. In her loneliness, Sophie yearns for the complicity of a traditional family. She spends her youth dreaming of a sister, a father, a mother who would stay home to cook dinner.

This childhood fixation on a 1950’s style family eventually transforms Sophie, a Generation X kid, into a woman of the last century. Unlike her famous mother who enjoys a self-made fortune that naturally comes with power and boy toys, Sophie prefers the unambitious life of a poorly paid salesgirl. Subconsciously rejecting her mother’s values, Sophie becomes what feminists loath: a happily dependent woman. She feels valued and “whole” only in the presence of Dante, her handsome Italian-Canadian husband. Sophie’s entire world dangles on the tip of his versatile tongue – she worships it for the kisses, the oral sex and the sweet words. Without him, she feels worthless, vulnerable. Eagerly, she becomes a prisoner of her love. When Dante dies in a car accident, Sophie morphs into a morbid, self-flagellating creature obsessed with ghosts and the underworld. A cure comes only after the birth of a daughter and marriage to another man. Somehow a second wedding to an old dentist succeeds in making Sophie “whole” again.

Equating women’s happiness with marriage and motherhood will have most feminists cringe. But Via Roma transcends such simple discourse. A reading between the lines reveals a complex work that borrows liberally from psychoanalytic theories. The underlying themes of sex, death and dreams – all Freudian concerns - are skilfully explored in this novel. Sophie’s difficult relationship with her mother and her longing for an imaginary father also illustrate well one of Freud’s famous theories: the Female Oedipus or Electra Complex.

Despite its serious subject matter, Via Roma: Between 2 Worlds, 2 Men is fun to read. The voice is original, the novel full of witty one-liners and quirky insights into the lives of Italian Canadians. A Tony Soprano seems to be lurking behind each character, or so thinks a paranoid Sophie. Besides entertaining us with her sardonic humour, Melfi also informs us with her meticulous research on death, religion and the ins and outs of Quebec politics. Sure, the novel has its minor faults. Dante, Mr. Perfect, is too good-looking, too nice, too hot in bed and too one-dimensional. But hey, why nitpick details when the overall picture is so much more interesting?

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