Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
To fully understand and appreciate Connie Guzzo-McParland’s new, almost epic novel, it is wise to go back to her first, the much briefer The Girls of Piazza d’Amore, which tells the story of the amorous goings-on of three teenage girls—Lucia, Tina, and Aurora—in the small Calabrian village of Mulirena. The narrator, ten-year-old Caterina Anastasia, spends a good deal of her time passing notes from the girls to their respective boyfriends. As such she can observe not just the exuberance of youthful infatuation as it is directed and constrained by village custom, but the social complexities of village life—the rivalries, jealousies, conspiracies, even some criminality. Mulirena is isolated and poor, and many of the younger generation of necessity are looking to the cities and even other countries for a future livelihood. Caterina herself is waiting to emigrate to Canada with her mother and brother, as many villagers have before. Her father has preceded them and is arranging the details of sponsorship. The book ends as they board the train for Naples, from where they will take a ship to Halifax, and thence travel by rail to Montreal.
The Women of Saturn picks up Caterina (now Cathy) in 1980, over twenty years later. She teaches hairdressing at a Montreal high school, but harbours dreams of being a writer. Lucia’s and Tina’s families followed Cathy’s to Montreal and, as with Cathy’s, became part of the well-established Italian-Canadian community there. The book, again narrated by Cathy, opens with a newspaper report that a woman has been beaten into a coma by her husband, who has fled. It is Lucia. Lucia’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Angie, is in Cathy’s class. She transferred from her school in Laval, where her family lives, because she was “school phobic”—a problem student. Cathy gets involved in trying to help Angie, now virtually an orphan, and this precipitates upheaval in her own life.
While The Girls of Piazza d’Amore is about village life and aspirations for a more hopeful future in a new country, The Women of Saturn is about the hard truths of immigrant life, in particular the clash of cultural norms and the shedding of romantic illusions about both people and financial success. The plot is simple, but the details are complex. Who really hit Lucia, and how is it connected with old feuds and debts of both money and honour stretching back to Mulirena are the questions that emerge to face Cathy’s pursuit of an explanation to the attack on Lucia.
Author Guzzo-McParland draws from her own very similar experience as an immigrant, supplying illuminating detail and observations that could not possibly have been invented. What emerges is a kaleidoscope picture of immigrant life. No choice is smooth; every situation contains a contradiction. Ties to Italy weaken but are not broken; ties to Canada grow, but are not complete. And it is not just the first generation that is affected. Angie is solidly Canadian, but the old-world ties—a land she has never seen, much less lived in—constrict her life as well. Her attitude becomes rejection and rebellion. As Cathy tries to address the issues in her own life—whether to marry her long-time boyfriend being the chief concern—we see facets to the immigrant quandary: where they fit in, where they don’t, the adjustment to new cultural norms and expectations, the struggle to keep what is valuable of their traditions and replace the rest with something “Canadian.”
Much is not what it seems in the Montreal Italian community, and Guzzo-McParland does a good job of challenging stereotypes to give the reader a clearer, more nuanced view of the immigrant experience. In the end Cathy makes the decisions she must, but they are merely next steps on a journey, not a resolution.
Interspersed are Cathy’s flashbacks to their boat trip across the Atlantic in 1957, their first years in Canada, a 1964 visit to Mulirena, and goings-on at Expo 67. Two chapters late in the book stray from the first-person narrative, however, and though necessary, they are a bit jarring. The first provides third-person information on intrigue back in Mulirena. The second is about Angie, giving her perspective on what is going on, including Cathy’s involvement. This chapter was a very welcome shift and more like it, telling Angie’s story more intimately, might have been a good idea.
The Women of Saturn is a vast story, with an intricate lattice of connected characters and sub-plots. It gets confusing at times, which is why reading The Girls of Piazza d’Amore first is a good idea, as it fleshes out some of the characters who are only given brief mention in The Women of Saturn. Taken together, this is an absorbing read.
The Women of Saturn is published by Inanna Publications.