How many ways can you get to know a culture different from that in which you grew up? One delectable way described in this review is through cuisines, which I’ve amplified in another post. Marlena DeBlasi takes a different tack in her memoir, That Summer in Sicily.
While she does sumptuously describe sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures in earlier chapters, she seduces you into experiencing and, maybe, falling in love with Sicily via the story of one woman. And a memorable character this woman is—unlike many others you might meet.
The “elixir of Sicily” the author calls her. “Bitter. Sweet.” A dramatic character, more compelling because she’s real. Not one hatched and sculpted in an author’s imagination. Except, perhaps, for her name―Tosca― selected by the writer to hide her true identity. A name, I suspect, DeBlasi lifted from Puccini’s opera of the same name.
Tosca narrates her story to the author who’s in Sicily for a magazine article on the region. Inevitably, DeBlasi’s memoir reads more like a novel. The subtitle should cue you in: A Love Story—one as sentimental, dreamy, titillating, provocative, frustrating, surreal, and satisfying as any romance novel. Between a peasant girl and a prince, no less; both of them heroic figures.
The necessary obstacles are there for Tosca and her prince. Theirs is a forbidden love. He’s married, out of duty to birth and family. But, yes, the union does have a happy ending.
Still, this is more than a story of true love with a happy ever after. Many times, Tosca explains or justifies her actions or those of her people by invoking their identity as Sicilians.
The love story, within the travel memoir is, thus, the author’s interesting way of illustrating what it’s like to be a Sicilian. It matters little that the picture Tosca paints does not go much deeper than our stereotypes of Sicilians (at least, as formed by movies). Capturing the essence of Sicily needs no less than the intimate telling of Tosca’s story.
You also realize, from this memoir, that when you cross borders to a foreign land, you may be exposed to its food, architecture, and all the other artifacts that define it. But you’ll never grasp what a culture or society is truly like until you learn the story of individuals who inhabit it from day-to-day. You may be comforted or surprised to find, as Tosca herself declares, that the story of her life is like all others. With the same unchanging tropes as one lived in a different time and place.