LENDING A HAND
Photo by Amber Shereen: www.ambershereen.com
The decision to donate half the proceeds from SMALL CHANGE to charity was the natural outcome of writing a book in which the protagonists are working to help children step out of poverty. The more difficult task was deciding to which charity I wanted to donate the proceeds. There are so many good charities, so much need, every new cause caught my attention and called for consideration. Finally, after studying Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, HALF THE SKY, I made my decision: I will give my money to two organizations that help girls in the third world to finish high school.
I believe that education is the way to exit from the poverty cycle. Statistics show that the longer a girl stays in school, the more likelihood there is of avoiding prostitution, too-early marriage, too-early pregnancies and all its associated risks. If the proceeds from SMALL CHANGE are sufficient, I would like additionally to support girls who will go on to study medicine, who are committed to bringing their learned skills back into their rural settings.
SMALL CHANGE is a love story. It begins with a desperate act, of twins found abandoned in a trash bin in England, but quickly moves into an inspiring story of people who love each other and those around them; people who are working to make the world a better place while celebrating its daily pleasures. Your pleasure in supporting SMALL CHANGE will be doubled by knowing that you, too, are helping to diminish poverty. -- Lynn Rodolico
“TENDER AND ELOQUENT...AN EXTRAORDINARY EYE FOR DETAIL”
--Trisha Thomas, AP Journalist, Rome
“A NOVEL OF GREAT INTERCULTURAL SENSITIVITY”
--Charles de Chassiron
Deadlines, Diapers, and the Dolce Vita
Dear Blog Readers — Today my post is dedicated to a review of a book written by a new friend of mine, Lynn Rodolico, followed by a chat with the author.
Lynn Rodolico’s “Small Change” is a tender and eloquent story of a Swedish-American couple who adopt twin babies found in a dumpster. The book tackles many of life’s big themes: birth and death, love and marriage, parenting the young and caring for the old, but most of all it is about mothers and children. Rodolico has created a beautifully crafted novel which pulls you imperceptibly into the lives of its characters, page after page until you feel you are with them, joining in daily conversations, sharing their concerns over important questions and partaking in their simple pleasures whether it is eating a meal or watching a child. When I reached the last page, I was sad to say goodbye to the characters I had become attached to.
Following the adoption, the protagonists, Christine and Thomas, move from London to Florence to join Thomas’s aging mother in her villa on a hillside above the Renaissance city. There, the couple combines the joy of raising their new children with the pain of watching the slow decline of Thomas’s mother, while pursuing an established family passion, helping children in need.
“Small Change” moves from the intellectual and professional pursuit of aiding the needy children of the world to the normal, daily care of healthy, happy children. I realized I was going to love “Small Change” when in its first pages, Rodolico cites one of my favorite children’s books “Make Way for Ducklings,” by Robert McCloskey and ends with another of my favorite children’s books, “Are you my Mother?” by P.D. Eastman.
Lynn Rodolico has an extraordinary eye for detail — her descriptions and conversations are so precise and realistic that the reader feels she must have been there. When she describes Christine’s struggle to care for newborn twins, her details of bottles and burping carried me back to the years when it seemed that feeding and burping was all I ever did. Leaky diapers, curdled milk down the backs of shirts, the hunt for the burping towel, it was all so familiar.
It is with the details that Rodolico gracefully weaves together the young and old, the beginning and end of life. Here is the view of Christine arriving at the villa in Florence and seeing her aging mother-in-law: “Perhaps it is the comparison to the smooth-skinned newborn in her arms that accentuates the wrinkles in her mother-in-law’s face. Perhaps it is the badly applied make-up, an uneven coat of unnatural pancake color that stops abruptly at the jaw bone, leaving the untouched neck a pallid, vulnerable white.” The slow decline of Thomas’ mother was so precisely described that I found myself recalling the details of the decline of my husband’s grandmother who died in her mid-nineties. When “Small Change’s” Anne says to her son, “this tired old husk is just waiting for a strong wind to blow it away,” it reminded me of similar conversations.
In contrast, Rodolico describes the exquisite pleasure in watching two-year-old twins:
“They… are wearing similar fairy princess costumes. The starchy tutus are short enough that Elizabeth notes their diapers have been replaced by thick cotton training pants. They each hold a star-shaped wand, and from the way they are swinging it, Elizabeth is either being sprinkled with fairy dust or being knighted.”
Here are the twins again: “The children have moved on to sprinkle their joy across the garden, blessing the flowers, a terrified cat, a wrought-iron bench situated beneath a weeping willow tree at the far edge of the courtyard. The girls are carefree and articulate, distilling a trail of babbling nonsense as light-hearted as a Puccini duet.”
Rodolico describes the normal shortcomings of children with lovely metaphors: “Anna hasn’t inherited her father’s ability to carry a tune, but it doesn’t stop her from singing. She marches through the lyrics like a woodcutter chopping a tree, hitting every note at exactly the same spot.”
Christine does not have it easy. She has lost her parents one after another in difficult circumstances, and has had several miscarriages. She is a highly-talented translator but eager to put aside her career to become a mother. She is deeply in love with her husband but lacks close friends in which she can confide her sadness and her fears.
Rodolico must be a culinary expert. I was astonished at her detailed description of every item of food in the book, moving easily from Swedish — apple pancakes and Pepparkarkor biscuits to Italian ones –tagliatelle al ragu and ribollita, with stops in the English countryside for tea and a picnic in Epping Forest. She manages to tie the food and drink (Glögg in Sweden, Tea in England, Wine in Italy) to culture and traditions of each country. A lovely line in the book is when the charming, blushing British Earl Julian admits to his best friend that he has fallen head over heels for the beautiful Italian-American because “It is the way she poured tea.” And, as if just for me, there is even an American mother who brings Christine a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
Rodolico gives such a splendid description of a wedding party at the Villa outside of Florence that she gives F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” a run for his money. She left me wondering which is better, a luxurious party in West Egg on Long Island or at Villa L’Antica in the hills above Florence: “The villa stands tall and stately inside an ancient fortress wall which is surrounded by far-reaching olive trees. Torches have been positioned along the parapet and have already been lit in anticipation of dusk. Spot lights illuminate the upper limbs of an ancient Cedar of Lebanon and the other secular trees in the garden. In the inner courtyard, a string quartet plays Handel’s Water Music…..she (Christine) doesn’t want to leave the view, not yet, not with the light shifting dramatically, turning the far hills violet where the sun still shines….All along the Arno Valley, the sun reflects its last rays, charging the pale blue sky with streaks of orange and pink. Across the valley, up in the hills of Fiesole and San Domenico, and Monte Morello, the facade of the Renaissance villas glow warmly with reflected light. …the clink of Baccarat crystal resonates clearly across the garden like an orchestra’s cymbals….”
Rodolico unabashedly tackles questions of love–first and foremost a mother’s love for her children, but there is also marital love, and the love between a grown child and an aging parent. She touches on questions of secrets and lies, and leaves the reader wondering whether it is appropriate or not to reveal an important secret if it can cause pain to someone we love.
“Small Change” is sprinkled with quotes from Auden, Wordsworth, Rilke, Millay, Keats, and Eliot, with the educated characters sprinkling their conversation with apt quotes. She cites one of my favorite poems, “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day
Throughout the book I found myself relating to Christine, the mother of the twins. Her fight with her husband over traveling to Nepal during her first pregnancy brought back to mind a ferocious fight I had with my own husband who wanted to stop me from going to war-torn Sarajevo when I was pregnant with my first-born. Pope John Paul II resolved that one for us by canceling his plans to visit.
Living in Italy, I find the book rich with details of life here: the mother-in-law’s cook Rosa notes every meal served to guests so as not to risk the “brutta figura” of serving the same dish twice. Someone tried to convince me to do that, too, but I know how to cook so few items well that my guests are better off getting the same dishes every time.
“Small Change” has a mission: to help children. The story begins with two newborns found in a dumpster, who would have died if a young doctor hadn’t heard a “mewing” noise as she was throwing out her trash. The book focuses on a people who dedicate themselves to helping suffering children all over the globe. Half the profits from “Small Change” will be donated to children’s charities.
MEETING THE AUTHOR
I took the train to Florence to meet with Lynn Rodolico and learn more about “Small Change”. As the “Freccia Rossa” (Red Arrow) train charged north from Rome, I stared at the rolling green hills of Umbria and Tuscany. As I zipped past little towns perched on hills in the distance, I felt the chaos and tension of Rome easing out of me.
Lynn is a tall, elegant woman with long, beautiful fingers and green eyes. She has thick salt-and -pepper hair that frames her face. As we talked throughout the day, I wondered how she could have such flawless skin when she spends so many hours under the Tuscan sun driving a tractor through olive groves.
Lynn lives on the hillside of the Arno valley that looks down on Florence. Standing at the ancient fortress wall surrounding the family Villa, we could see the Cupola of Florence’s Duomo in the distance and the town of Fiesole on the other side of the valley. The 15th century villa is surrounded by 64 acres (24 hectares) of olive groves. Lynn and her husband, Antonino, produce oil from the olives which they sell around the globe.
Lynn divides her time between driving her tractor, caring for the olive trees, and writing novels.
Lynn told me that she began writing “Small Change” in February 2012 when she woke one night from a dream with the image: “twins abandoned in the snow.” She sat down and began to write—and couldn’t stop. The novel was completed in four months. As she explained, “During that period I would regularly be awakened in the night by an image. I couldn’t resist being in the company of the characters. It was like a love affair with all these amazing people.”
Lynn says it is a book about mothers as much as it is about children. Moreover, it is also a book about love: love between a husband and wife, a girlfriend and boyfriend, a mother and child, a child and its parents. Lynn explained that her intent was to show, “different kinds of love. Love is not always simple or easy. Love is a responsibility. “Small Change” describes the complications of love, not just the fresh glow.”
Lynn knows a few things about love. She came to Italy in 1985 to finish writing a novel and met Antonino on her first day in Florence, in a villa similar to the one described as Thomas’s mother’s house near Fiesole. As Lynn told me, “He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian. We didn’t speak the same language, but we shared a love of language. We never made the mistake of assuming we understood what the other was saying, and we continue to listen closely to what each other has to say, even though we both speak English and Italian now. ”
They share their love of words and a passion for writing, in both languages. Antonino translated Lynn’s last book, “Two Seas” into Italian. She said, “He spent nine months of his life, day after day, word after word. I fell in love with him all over again as he was translating “Two Seas”. He treated my prose as carefully and as lovingly as he cared for our daughters when they were babies.” This summer he will translate “Small Change” into Italian as she works on her next book.
Lynn and Antonino also share a passion for hard, physical labor. Lynn told me that in the harvest season, which can last anywhere from three weeks to two months, she doesn’t attempt to write. Work starts at sunrise and the day is long and intense. ”It is exhilarating work, and exhausting,” she said.
Lynn has provided a detailed account of the work involved in an olive harvest through her protagonist Kate in the novel in “Two Seas,” “The harvest is demanding but it is beautiful, too, as long as Kate remembers to pause from time to time, to raise her gaze to the distant hills, to photograph mentally the images as they present themselves. The Arno valley is swept clean of summer’s heavy air, the clouds are high, the sun is bright but not hot. Unless it rains, it is a pleasure to be outdoors. Surely, they would have lost the experience of autumn if they hadn’t been harvesting, if they had been sitting warm and cozy indoors in front of the fireplace.”
As we sit at her kitchen table, following a brief tour of the rooms below their home where they collect the olives and bottle the oil, Lynn tells me, “During the harvest, we even dream of olives. I have even found olives in the cuffs of my pajamas. And naturally, we enjoy our newly pressed olive oil with everything we eat.”
At the end of our day together, riding down the small, curving road through the olive trees back to the train station for my return trip to Rome, I felt sad. I wanted to stay longer at Villa Arrigo and drive Lynn’s tractor, make olive oil and write. But my responsibilities in Rome were calling me. I will return to Florence, and in the meantime, I will enjoy Lynn’s eloquent vision through “Small Change” and “Two Seas.”
Michael: Tell us a little about your beginnings.
Lynn: I grew up in Pacific Palisades, California, which is a pretty special place, balanced as it is between the mountains and the ocean. My father was from New York City, my mother from a small farming community in Kansas. I was one of four children, the third daughter, and I thought my childhood was fairly happy until I grew up and had a closer look at real happiness.
Michael: How so?
Lynn: I won't bore you with the details. What I will say is that the sense of isolation I experienced as a child prepared me for a writer's life. I learned early to use my imagination to keep myself company, to make things "right." I learned to take careful note of my surroundings, which helped me make sense of things.
Peggy: An observer.
Lynn: Writing let me be in charge of my story. Books were my best friends and offered alternative plot lines....
While I was in Genova presenting my novel Two Seas at the Italo-Britannica, my daughter was at home on a rare weekend free when the doorbell rang. “Are you a doctor?” a young woman asked frantically. “I am,” Lisa answered. “Please, my baby has stopped breathing.”
As I was fielding questions about the significance of the title Two Seas and answering why my new novel, Small Change, begins with a brutal prologue, Lisa was racing through the snow in her socks. In less than a minute she had her neighbor’s six week old baby breathing again, and by the time the paramedics arrived with the ambulance, the baby was crying heartily.
While I was basking in the aftermath of congratulations, Lisa was driving the baby’s grandmother to the hospital while the mother accompanied her daughter in the ambulance, pausing only to return home for her shoes.
My presentation was a resounding success until I compare it to Lisa’s, and then I am humbled.
The baby is well and home from the hospital, the parents and grandparents are moving past the shock, and Lisa is back at work. In the hospital, doctors save lives every day, but out of hospital, when a minute can make the difference, it is Lisa’s performance that has to be acknowledged as the success.
On the Road to Kathmandu
Posted on 7 August 2012 by Lynn Rodolico
Several years ago, a friend called with the devastating news that her husband, Peter, was seriously ill. We have all received a phone call of this kind. There is not much we can do under the circumstances except voice concern and offer distraction: “Come to Italy,” I said, “if Peter is up for it.”
A few months later, we had house guests. Our dinners were filled with conversations that kept me thinking long after everyone had retired for the night.
We discussed Peter’s situation, as well. It wasn’t taboo. Peter told me that when he returned to the States, he was going to make some changes in his life.
“What kind of changes?” I asked, pouring the last of the wine into his glass.
“I am going to quit my job, first thing.”
“But it’s a good job.”
“It’s a good paying job, there’s a difference.”
“What would you like to do instead?”
“I would like to tutor math to the underprivileged high school kids in our city to make sure they can get into good universities.” His list is long and as he continues, I find his idealism admirable but increasingly unrealistic. He finishes: “I would like to spend time in Kathmandu to teach the kids there the essentials for running a business.”
A quest to leave a lasting mark, I think, as I blow out the candles on the table that have grown low during the course of the evening. As I tidy up the kitchen, I understand and applaud his impulse, even while doubting the practicality. Whatever my reservations, I understood his intentions are a gesture of love for life.
Two Seas is also a love song. It celebrates the beauty of the north-western corner of Sicilia, the generosity and hospitality of the people who live between the sea and the mountains. It is a story about the everyday—every precious day. It speaks of the things that happen to people like us when we remember to pay attention to the possibilities around us, if we live our lives with the respect it merits.
A woman wrote to me when she had finished reading Two Seas.
“I could see Sicily. I could envision every island, mountain and road; I smelled every bloom and noted every bud. I smelled the precious balsamic, tasted the pesto, savored the baked goods. I cried at the sad parts; felt my blood run cold when Kate was betrayed by her friends. I loved every minute of it.
I felt the rain, floated in the pond, watched the clouds forming and reforming. Now, when I see clouds overhead, I stop to watch their movement. I see them in a new way; I see them as if for the first time.”
While most of us talk of change but continue to live our familiar lives statically, for better or for worse, Peter is making his way to Kathmandu, not for the first time but for the fourth. His illness has gone into remission. As he makes the long journey from Philadelphia to the village where he will teach, travelling first by airplane, then by train, by bus and finally by small mountain horse across a desolate riverbed, his only complaint is that his anaemia makes him a little tired.
The other day I received the following note from Kathmandu. Peter wrote:
I finished Two Seas during my 38 hour transit. Reading and drifting in and out of sleep on the flights, I sometimes wasn’t sure if I were in Sicily.
I passed the book on to an English couple I met at Newa Chen, my residence in KTM, who were searching the library for something interesting to read on the flight home. I gave them Two Seas, on the condition they promise to pass the book along to another international traveller. Lynn, your opus is circling the globe.” Peter
En route to realizing his most outlandish dream, Peter has simultaneously fulfilled a dream of mine: to circulate Two Seas across the continents, around the world, so that everyone anywhere or anyone everywhere will be reminded to give heed to the simple pleasures in everyday life. Most of the people reading Two Seas don’t live in Italy, the mountains and seas that surround you are different from Cofano and the Mediterranean, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t feel the spray of the two seas meeting, even as you traverse the Himalayas on horseback, en route to your own particular dream.
A Hole in the Dish Towel
Posted on 12 June 2012 by Lynn Rodolico
A few weeks ago I was searching internet for a simple song that the protagonist in my new novel could teach her young daughters. Christine is Swedish, she is a simultaneous translator, and three years ago she and her husband, Thomas adopted newborn twins who had been abandoned in a trash bin. The song needs to be simple, catchy. I Google Simple Songs in Swedish, French, English and Spanish, and up pops the name Virginia Bachlund. Odd, I think, I knew a Virginia Bachlund, and as I read, I realize it is the same person. Mammacita, as we called her, was the choir director at the Methodist Church when I was a little girl. She let me sit beside her on the piano bench while she taught the older children to sing. She appears fondly in my last novel, Two Seas, and, I realize, without knowing so, I have fashioned another character after her in my new novel, Small Change.
On line, I read that her youngest son, Gary, had found Simple Songs among her papers when she died. A renowned musician and opera singer, Gary set the poems to music. They were not the songs I had been looking for, but as so often happens, what we are given is far greater than what we think we are seeking.
I sent Gary Bachlund a copy of Two Seas, suspecting he would be pleased to find his mother lovingly remembered in the text, but Gary went beyond simple appreciation: he read Two Seas with an artist’s eye and reconstructed it musically, composing a Nocturne and Fugue in D flat major that lets me hear my prose played back in another key. I find it astonishing but I can follow the book’s action by listening to the music. I have listened to it over and over again, and each time I reach the conclusion covered in goose bumps. Talk about being heard!
As a novelist, I write as much to entertain myself as for an audience. I play with words and characters, let them take on as many levels of meaning as they can hold without becoming overburdened and unable to carry forward the plot. I create riffs and counterpoints, metaphors which lengthen like late afternoon shadows to become leitmotifs. In the same way that a thoughtfully arranged centrepiece will enhance the flavor of the food brought to the table, I trust that readers will be moved by the subtleties, even if they don’t notice them directly.
But Gary picked up the nuances:
"In her novel, Lynn quotes lines from Longfellow's poem, "Between the dark and the daylight, / When the night is beginning to lower...." Among the images of her new home in Sicily are images of darkness and daylight in the time of day, as in the change of seasons, as in the passage of life to death."
and elaborated on them in his music, creating sounds of light and dark, urgency and understanding, questioning and acceptance, the steps through which the characters in Two Seas move in order to resolve themselves; allow themselves the happiness they are seeking.
I was startled to find Virginia Bachlund on line, but I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, as she is tangibly present in our home every day. One of the last times I saw her, she gave me a beautiful Steuben glass Christmas tree, wrapped in a kitchen towel to keep it safe. The Christmas ornament comes out once a year as the centerpiece of our dining room table, but the dish towel is ever-present in our kitchen. Its bright red plaid has faded and it has developed a hole, but the memories don’t fall through. On the contrary: it is through this hole that a song has sprung to life.
for Lynn Rodolico
Photo by Brian Krantz
I speak with my best friend every Sunday. She is just waking up, looking forward to her morning coffee, while I am winding down, beginning to think about what I will cook for dinner. With low international rates, I don’t mind if our call lasts an hour. On the contrary, the leisure allows us to talk about what’s really on our minds, not to hurry through a mere recounting of events that have filled our week. We have known each other since middle school. It is a perfect friendship, I would say, even if we don’t see each other but once in a blue moon. The character Carrie, in my last novel Two Seas, is in part based on my friendship with Pattie.
An ideal friendship is a dangerous measure if it precludes other, lesser friendships. On this cold, gray, early December morning, when the sun has lost its wager against the fog, and the house at noon is as dark as it will be at midnight, I am reminded of another friendship, as brief as it was significant.
Several years ago, my younger daughter moved from Rome to Utrecht for what would be the equivalent of her junior year abroad. She had been living away from home for several years already, and I was surprised when she asked if I would accompany her from Italy to Holland in January. We dressed in our warmest clothes and set off, four suitcases between us containing everything she would need for her year’s stay.
Florence is cold in the winter, more due to the humidity than the low marks on the thermometer, but Holland in January is freezing, both in degrees and humidity. Waiting for the bus from the airport that would deliver us to the train for Utrecht, our warmest clothes were inadequate. Our hands froze through our thick gloves, and when our eyes teared, the tears froze on our faces. Somehow, together, we transported ourselves to the town of Utrecht, and carried my daughter’s four heavy suitcases up five steep flights of icy, outdoor stairs. Gratefully we unlocked the door to the apartment she would inhabit for the next 12 months, only to find it was mostly unfurnished. There were a few dented pans in the kitchen, two chipped plates, but no sheets or blankets for the bed, not even a pillow.
Utrecht is a beautiful town built on canals, but the cold in January is as sharp as the icicles hanging from every house we passed. While Francesca attended her first day of classes, I shopped for the basic necessities. By noon, I had resolved many of the apartment’s short-comings, and, frozen to the bone, I settled my packages and myself into a crowded little shop and ordered a pot of tea. I must have looked as miserable as I felt for the woman seated at the next table leaned forward to offer me a pastry from the tray on her table. When she learned of the errands I still needed to do, she offered to drive me to a large shopping mall, and after I had finished selecting what I needed, she drove me and all my bundles back to my daughter’s new apartment. And then she helped me carry them up the five steep, icy flights of steps.
As I said goodbye—and thank you—we exchanged email addresses. By the time I was reunited with my daughter at the end of her first full day of classes, her apartment had been transformed into a cosy and inviting place to live. She could add the personal touches after I returned to Italy, but the basics, the essentials, had been taken care of. As I was leaving for the airport, my proud and independent daughter confessed that she would have despaired if she had been left to furnish the apartment alone, given her full academic schedule and the need to rely for transportation on a second-hand bicycle she had yet to purchase.
Travelling home alone, I had time to think about the great fortune I had experienced. Undoubtedly, I, too, would have despaired if I’d had to finish furnishing my daughter’s apartment on foot in an unfamiliar winter city, the weight of the groceries, the bulk of the duvet and pillow and towels weighing me down both physically and spiritually. How fortunate I had been to find a friend. I would write to her as soon as I returned home, invite her to come to visit us in Florence.
My long and effusive email was returned as undeliverable, despite repeated attempts, nor was I ever to receive a message from her. These several years later, I can’t even be sure of her name, but I will never forget the lasting gift of friendship from my momentary friend. The fact of friendship remains deeply embedded, despite its seemingly ephemeral nature.