My Brilliant Friend & Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC

my brillant friendMy Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante. New York: Europa, 2012.

Childhood memories are often dominated by someone like Lila – the one who excels in every subject, the one who throws rocks at bullies, the one who cares nothing about what others think of her including her teachers, the one who takes her best friend’s hand and leads her on big adventures. On the outskirts of Naples, Italy following the Second World War, a brazen friend like Lila can help a timid girl navigate the domestic complexities of her working-class neighborhood and dream about a life beyond the piazza.

Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym of the unknown author) draws perhaps from her (or his) own experiences growing up in post-war Italy to pen the four novels that follow the coming-of-age lives of the narrator, mild-mannered Elena Greco, and her courageous best friend, Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the “Neapolitan Quartet” and vividly captures the personality of a community through the antics of children; much like Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. From the neighborhood ogre Don Achille, whose presence looms over the novel, to the mad widow, Melina Cappuccio, to the handsome yet cruel sons of the neighborhood bar and pastry shop, Marcello and Michele Solara, Ferrante draws the reader into the tapestry of a story where family poverty and plenty live side by side.

“Our world was full of words that killed,” Elena ruminates. “Croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”

The central struggles in the novel center around two factors that determine the girls’ futures – education and money. While Elena and Lila begin as equals as they play with their dolls and enter first grade, it is soon evident that as the daughter of a city hall porter, Elena has more advantages than Lila, whose father is a lowly shoemaker. Elena’s parents agree to pay for a tutor so that she can excel on the entrance exam for middle school, while Lila’s parents refuse the expenditure, feeling that it is time for her to work in the family store. In the years to follow, Elena struggles with her studies and worries about puberty, while Lila embraces shoe design and the growing advances of young men, especially handsome Marcello Solara and the upwardly-mobile Stefano Carraci. Struggle seems bred into the girls since they see so much of it around them. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they make it difficult for us,” Elena explains.

Adding to their struggles is their gender. As was often the case for females in the 1950’s, both girls gradually realize how dependent their lives are on the fortunes and misfortunes of men, especially if they wish to escape the confines of their neighborhood. Escape is, indeed, a key theme to the story. Chapter One begins with the adult Elena learning that her old friend Lila has disappeared from her home in Naples – a feat that the young Lila often expressed: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear.” The final chapter of the story shows the beginning steps Lila is willing to take on her transformation journey.

Elena’s telling the story of their friendship from its inception is her way of recreating what has long since disappeared through the years – two girls who once were inseparable.

My Wine Recommendation

lacryma christiLegend says that when Lucifer was expelled from heaven, he managed to steal a strip of it and bring it with him to earth, so forming the Gulf of Naples. Pained by the loss, Christ began to cry, shedding tears upon Mount Vesuvius. When these sweet tears blossomed the grape vines on the mountainside, they created a heavenly taste: Lacryma Christi. In actuality, the wine that carries the name for Christ’s tears, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC, comes from the Sannino winery, founded in the early 1900s on the fertile ground of the Vesuvius near the city of Herculaneum. Their 2016 vintage has an intense ruby-red color with aromas of cherries , raspberries, and black pepper. Naturally, it pairs well with spaghetti and meatballs, Bolognese sause, and pizza Margherita. $17.

Book Pairing: Tomato Rhapsody & Castello di Meleto Chianti Reserva 2012

tomato rhapsody

Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust
& Forbidden Fruit

by Adam Schell.
New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

If ever a fruit was cultivated that pairs well with wine, the tomato is it. Slice it on a sandwich, ladle it on pizza, toss it with pasta, or layer it between mozzarella and basil with a drizzle of olive oil, the tomato simply cries for a glass of vino.

In Tomato Rhapsody, make that a full bottle as the story of the humble tomato is elevated to the height of Bacchus himself. Set in 16th century Tuscany, the story follows the love-at-first-sight meeting between Davido, a young Ebreo (Jewish) farmer who cares for his tomato plants so much he sleeps beside them, and Mari, a beautiful Catholic girl who has an equal passion for growing olives.

“Lush, round, slightly ribbed, a shade of red unmatched in all of nature, with a melding of yellow,” alas, the sexy tomato is considered by good Christians to be the fruit of the devil. Thus, theirs is a forbidden love united by a forbidden fruit.

For the Jewish settlers to remain and flourish in Tuscany, they must educate their neighbors to the tomatoes’ rich goodness. That opportunity comes at the Feast of the Drunken Saint – a festival that, among other things, pits one’s stamina for drinking wine against one’s ability to stay on the back of a donkey . . . with one’s hand tied behind one’s back . . . pummeling one another with the free hand . . . for twelve laps around the town square. All villagers agree it’s the perfect way for Davido to prove his worthiness to Mari.

But as Shakespeare would say, “A happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story,” for like a Shakespearean comedy, the lovers must go through much more agony before reaching the happy every after when they learn, “The truth my heart tells me looms above, that if we choose each other, God will protect us, for God is real and God is love.”

In many ways, Tomato Rhapsody reads like it was written by the Bard. The villagers speak in rhyming couplets, the humor is bawdy, the structure follows a three-act play, and there’s even a fool who delivers asides. Rounding out the cast of villagers is a Padre whose appetite for food surpasses his love of God, an evil stepfather determined not only to sell off his step-daughter to the highest bidder but also take over the fertile farming land owned by the Jews, a ready knave to do his bidding, and a ruling lord who descends from “a long line of inbreeds, half-wits, perverts, pedants, scoundrels, tyrants, sodomites and syphilitics.” (No wonder he wants to become a humble peasant.)

Since the novel is based on the introduction of the tomato to Italian cooking, the author sprinkles the book with recipes such as Mari’s One-Pan Roasted Tomato Sauce with Black Olives and the Good Padre’s Lemony Tomato & Mink Panzanetta Salad.

Family, tradition, religion, love, food, wine. Tomato Rhapsody hits all the right notes for an enjoyable summer read. Buon Appetito!

My Wine Recommendation

castello di meletoOne of the oldest and most esteemed vineyards in Tuscany (established 1256) is Castello di Meleto, and their2012 Chianti Riserva Vigna Casi is the wine to drink. This single-vineyard Riserva has the dark color and dense concentration of flavors you would expect from Chianti, but it also has a soft side that brings notes of cherry, blackberry and spice. Our lovers would approve. The 2012 reached its maturity in 2015 so it can be drunk now. $30.

 

Book Pairings: A Nearly Perfect Copy & Mumm Napa Brut Prestige

 

A Nearly Perfect Copy

A Nearly Perfect Copy
by Allison Amend
New York: Random House, 2013.

Is a lie ever justified? Can deceit lead to happiness?  Allison Amend examines this tangled web in a story set in the art world. Elm works for Tinsley’s, a New York auction house established by her grandfather. She has “the eye” – the ability to see art as if through the eyes of the artist, a “transubstantiation” that seems spiritual as if she hears the art speak. Her area of expertise is seventeenth- through nineteenth- century drawings and prints, which makes her “the go-to person for a New York Times quote, the one who took big clients to dinner, a member of the board of trustees of two museums and the art consultant to a trendy, invited-members-only downtown social club.”

But Elm’s eye has suffered since a 2004 vacation in Thailand when her son was lost in a tsunami. Somehow she managed to make it to the shore with her daughter but her son, Rolan, was never found. Her husband was right beside him. She knows it wasn’t Ian’s fault, after all, some 240,000 were killed, but could he not have saved one little boy?

At an art patron’s home, she meets a couple who loved their Rhodesian Ridgeback so much they’re investigating having him cloned. It’s an audacious idea, but her depression is so great, her grief so deep, that it gets her thinking.

In Paris, Gabriel is the quintessential starving artist. A graduate of a prestigious art school, his gift is his ability to create derivative drawings of masters, especially the Spanish painters of the late 1800’s. He knows how to prime canvasses with gesso, making them so smooth the paint glides. He knows how to mix his own colors – “stark cobalt, aquamarine nearly glowing, or a navy, so dark, as to masquerade as black” – the colors so often used by the artists he emulates. When he takes brush in hand, he channels these painters onto the canvas. Compared to his original art which has been described by teachers as lacking inspiration, voice or spark, these works glitter.

Through his girlfriend, Colette, who also works for Tinsley’s, he receives a proposition from her uncle – create canvasses in the style of the Spanish masters for a client who is furnishing a hotel. Such a simple job; what easy money. Why shouldn’t he finally make his art pay? How could he possibly know that it is destined for a New York auction house?

A careful reader can see where Amend is going with this story. Like Faust, each character makes a deal with the devil. Elm is so deep in deceit that she doesn’t question the art that crosses her desk. If she wants to recreate her son, she needs lots of money for the exclusive French doctors who do the procedure. In contrast, Gabriel simply wants to hold onto his girlfriend, pay his rent and get some respect in the art world. He’s torn, but it’s better than selling canvases beside the Seine.

Amend complicates the plot even further by overlaying Elm and Gabriel’s story with the continuing effort by US and French authorities to reunite art taken by the Nazi’s to the families of the owners. It seems the uncle not only wants to pass off Gabriel’s work as authentic but also to claim it was recovered stolen property. His logic is seductive: “Say you borrow twenty euros from someone. Then you pay them back. Does it have to be the same twenty euros?”

As Elm and Gabriel consider their options, the reader gets an insider’s look into the world or at and art forgery. It’s big business. While the central characters are at times dislikeable, the minor characters fill in the spaces their conscience has skipped. Lying is a web but a seductive one. A Nearly Perfect Copy is not a perfect novel, but it’s close enough for an enjoyable read.

My wine recommendation:

Mumm-BrutPrestige-LG_e3b4Ah, the French aperitif. What a wonderful ritual. Whether shared with friends before a meal or at a book club meeting, my favorite is Kir Royale. In a fluted glass, add crème de Cassis or Chambord liqueur to champagne. Save the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label for another occasion and choose instead Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. Its fresh apple aromas will balance nicely with the black current of the Cassis and its price will satisfy both your palette and your wallet. Santé! ($22)