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July 08, 2024

The Islands of Divine Music: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

The Islands of Divine Music, by John Addiego.

Although Janine understood almost none of the language, the expressions and gestures of the people at the table were so familiar that she felt she'd already heard this entire conversation and understood it perfectly, sitting among her aunts and uncles in her grandmother's house many nights near the San Francisco Bay. - from The Islands of Divine Music, page 190 -

John Addiego's debut novel -- The Islands of Divine Music -- is a multi-generational novel in short stories about the Verbicaro family. The book spans more than 100 years and is told from the multiple viewpoints of five generations of Italian-Americans, beginning with the voice of matriarch Rosari as she leaves Southern Italy bound for the United States. Although each individual must move through their life with their own problems, challenges, and unique perspectives...they are all bound together by family and the divine. A member of my book group referred to them as "islands within the chain of an archipelago" which seems to describe the structure of this novel well.

The Islands of Divine Music is not an easy book to read and understand. Addiego uses magical realism to bring forth his themes of isolation, faith and love of family. All the characters are seriously flawed -- some becoming embroiled in the mafia, others turning towards prostitution, and some slipping into the stranglehold of drug addiction. They fight demons such as social alienation, violence, and infidelity. All of this occurs against the backdrop of 20th century American history: Immigration, Prohibition, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights. It is a large platter of rich subject matter -- and at times it seems almost too weighty for a novel of just under 250 pages.

Addiego is a skillful writer and there were some passages that were so beautifully written I began marking them:

Eleonora stood on deck with her head uncovered, her face radiant, and the sky fell as white jewels onto her black hair. She lifted Rosari's hand, and they danced slowly through the snow, a substance Rosari had never seen before, a phenomenon which seemed to her then the flight of a million angels come to guide her mother and herself to a new life. - from The Islands of Divine Music, page 14 -

Through the glass their eyes met, and Penny's heart jumped, and as the pneumatic door snapped shut and the car lurched forward she mouthed his name, and he nodded. Both of them opened their mouths and pointed as the train swiftly drew them apart, the one who had stood on the Golden Gate Bridge an hour earlier and decided against death by the direction of a bird's flight and the other who'd returned in thought to that hidden mesa at the end of the world where a mother and child huddled under a blue poncho and waited for the shadow of death to pass over. - from The Islands of Divine Music, page 129 -

Despite these exquisite passages, the novel also was quite graphic in its descriptions of violence -- especially one scene which describes the sexual assault of one of the female characters. There were moments in the book where I felt Addiego could have been less graphic and still made his points.

One of the flaws of the novel was the vast numbers of characters which flow in and out of the narrative. Luckily for the reader, Addiego provides a genealogical chart at the beginning which I found myself referring to many times just to keep everyone straight. This novel often felt like a collection of short stories (and indeed, many of the chapters were previously published as short stories). I found myself frustrated at times that just as I was starting to get to know one character, I was introduced to another. The second half of the book felt better-connected to me than the first part.

I have a negative bias toward novels entrenched in magical realism, so it is to Addiego's credit that I found myself slipping into the world of the Verbicaro family and wanting to know more about them. The language of this novel is raw and occasionally graphic; often the characters are gritty and unlikable. Although I think Addiego is a talented writer, the book was not really my cup of tea. But for readers who love magical realism and who like a novel which is unique, The Islands of Divine Music might be just what you are looking for...

Three stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".

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Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-03-16
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