Under a Sardinian Sky offers the reader a complete immersion into the Sardinia of the 1950s. Every page makes you feel as if you’re right there experiencing everything, as there is no detail deemed too big or too small to reveal the subtlest nuances of the setting. Joy of family and familial love is a theme that hums through this whole story, and food also plays a pivotal role in bringing people together and conveys a plethora of emotions from joy, sorrow, and fear to awkwardness, desire, and revulsion. This is a book in which emotions are intensely felt.
The tale begins in London of 2007. Mina is visiting her mother, Vittoria, at the house in which she shares with Mina’s aunt Piera, who has just died. While Vittoria is grieving for Piera, she is also grieving for her older sister, Carmela, who vanished without a trace some decades ago, one loss seeming to bring all losses to the surface. Mina decides once and for all to find out what happened to Carmela in order to set her mother’s mind at rest.
The novel then shifts to the small town of Simius in post-World War II Sardinia, when Carmela Chirigoni was a young woman still living at home with her beloved family. She’s a talented seamstress working in her godmother’s shop conjuring up avant-garde designs and exact replications of the clothes featured in magazines while also maintaining a high standard of finessing the details in the creation of her visions. In addition to this, she and her sister, Piera also work as seasonal domestics for long-stay foreign visiting families as they’re both talented cooks steeped in the traditions of the Sardinian food culture.
One summer in her sixteenth year, Carmela comes to the notice of Franco, the eldest son of a prominent figure in Simiun society, and they get engaged shortly thereafter. Carmela, in her youth, was in love with love and overpowered by Franco’s obviously possessive attentions. However, as she’s grown older, she now realizes that she’s uncomfortable with Franco’s jealous scrutiny and she suspects that what he feels for her may not be true love, but some contorted facsimile of it.
In the meantime, the Americans are establishing a base near Simius and the soldiers are running tame in the town. Carmela and Lieutenant Joe Kavanagh happen across each other a few times and find themselves strongly attracted, both physically and mentally. The first time they spend any time together is during the night vigil they hold by the hospital bed of Carmela’s cousin, where he’s recovering from a life-saving operation performed by Kavanagh. Ms. Alexander describes that tender scene in loving detail - the halting conversation, their attraction to each other, visible on her part, muted on his, the tentativeness they both feel in this restrained environment, and the fragility of of this new connection.
As her feelings for Kavanagh grow, Carmela’s former feelings for Franco seem grotesque by comparison. While Kavanagh is all maturity, grace, and praise, Franco is jealous, immature, and denigrating. Kavanagh makes her feel like she can build something of her life that is part of the greater world, Franco wants to confine her within the metaphorical walls of the city.
Carmela wants Kavanagh with every fiber of her being… but he is married.
When Kavanagh’s wife, Virginia, visits him with their infant son, he is delighted and Carmela is devastated. Virginia relegates Carmela to the role of a domestic, but this only serves to increase Kavanagh’s fascination with Carmela.
Kavanagh is suddenly recalled to Washington DC and over the months there, he becomes estranged from his wife and decides to confess his love for Carmela in a letter. Things come to a head when he returns to Sardinia.
For Carmela, there is the constant struggle between Kavanagh and her family. She loves both but who can she give up?
“I love my family, Joe.”
He wrapped his hand around hers. “They’re wonderful people. I felt it the moment I met them.”
Carmela shifted in her seat. “So you want to take me away from them?”
After the death of his mother and betrayal by his ex-wife, Kavanagh no longer wants to sacrifice love for anything; he wants to give Carmela the world and he wants her by his side when he is posted to Munich, because he knows she wants to be with him as much as he wants to be with her. But she will have to choose: him or her family.
Carmela reminds me of Griet from Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. On the surface, she is stoic and accepting of what life has in store for her, but underneath, emotions run high. But unlike Griet, in the end, Carmela makes her own decision and forges her own path without letting life bludgeon her into doing its bidding. I applauded Carmela for her courage.
I am in awe of the kind of meticulous and extensive research Ms. Alexander has done. This book is a tour de force in world-building. And yet… much as it grieves me to say it, there is such a thing as too much research. The story has a tendency to get lost amidst the details that sometimes impart nothing about the characters or the narrative and are solely there to convey scene setting. so that the forward drive to the narrative is lost.
Nevertheless, Under a Sardinian Sky is evocative and unforgettable for its strong, heartfelt characters, for the glorious, sweeping vista of Sardinia of the 1950s, and for engaging my emotions so thoroughly that I couldn’t put it down.
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