Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When you’re in love, the whole world is Italian

When you’ve got a novel subtitled, “A Fable of Love, Lust & Forbidden Fruit,” what’s not to like? Well, a few things, actually, but overall this debut novel is a charmer. It is being marketed as a comic romance between Jewish tomato farmer Davido and Catholic olive farmer Mari. And it is—but the star-crossed lovers don’t even lay eyes upon each other for nearly 100 pages. Their story is one of many taking place in an unnamed 16th century Tuscan village.

There we meet Davido’s Nonno (grandfather), who was introduced to the exotic tomato during his travels with Christopher Columbus in the new world. We meet Mari’s disabled mother and villainous stepfather, Giuseppe and Giuseppe’s conflicted henchman, Benito. Much of village life revolves around the church, and the Good Padre of this church is truly unique—from his all-embracing heart right down to his purple skin! We meet many other residents of the town: an outspoken housewife, a tolerant cheese maker, an intolerant butcher, a one-testicled tavern owner, and a very wise fool. To this cast of characters add Cosimo di Pucci de Meducci, III, grand Duke of Tuscany, and his chef, Luigi, who find their way to this back water town separately, and who each discover that this little village meets needs in themselves they never knew existed.

Beyond being a mere comedy or romance, this is a story of ignorance and anti-Semitism and of the struggle of good people for tolerance. And it is the story of the comfort and peace found in the Catholic Church. It is a story of village life, and a love song to the joys of Mediterranean food. I defy you to get through this novel without, at the very least, ordering in a pizza.

I found myself smiling throughout this quirky comic novel, but I will acknowledge that Tomato Rhapsody is not without its flaws, and will not be appreciated by all readers. It is Adam Schell’s debut, and he is still learning to use the tools of his craft: exposition, character development, plotting, etc. He’s experimenting a bit wildly with other tools: foreshadowing, flashbacks, direct address, symbolism, archetypes, footnotes, etc. I didn’t agree with all of his choices, but most of the faults were forgivable.

The bigger problems are that this novel is told in archaic-sounding language. Large sections of the dialogue are spoken in rhyme. (A sort of medieval rap, if you will.) And parts of this comic novel are crude or downright lewd. Many readers will find one or more of these elements extremely off-putting. Simply put, this novel is NOT for everyone.

I would suggest as a litmus test that you ask yourself how likely you would be to sit down and read a Shakespearian comedy? That, of course, refers only to style, and isn’t meant to suggest in any way that Schell’s work is in the same ballpark. No, it’s strange, and quirky, and flawed. But I liked it. And I smiled while I read it. I’m being a little generous with my four-star review, but I think there will be critics aplenty. I just wanted to applaud an author going out on a limb. I may never look at a tomato the same way again.

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