The most recent novel by Helen Barolini, who won the 2008 Premio Acerbi literary prize, illustrates the travels of a restless twenty-two year-old college graduate, Frances Molletone, as she spends a year in post-World War ii Italy. In Crossing the Alps, Barolini returns to the themes and landscapes of Umbertina, her 1979 novel, which was reprinted by the Feminist Press in 1999. While Umbertina spans four generations of women from one family, Crossing the Alps is an intense bildungsroman that concentrates on Fran’s pursuit of a young, married, Italian forestry official, Walter Bongalli. The chase takes her on a trip to Italy in 1948 where she extends her visa indefinitely by taking Italian language classes and writing freelance articles for an American newspaper.
Barolini provides a compelling psychological portrait of how the anti-Italianism of the twentieth century’s first four decades impacted Fran’s community, despite the profuse financial success of her parents and their friends in upstate New York. On the eve of her departure for Italy, at Fran’s going away party, one of the neighbors accuses her of turning into a «wop». Barolini describes the effect, «Wop. Reject. Part of some lower order. The word created such a dissonance in this fine house, awakening echoes everyone wanted stilled, that Fran fancied she could hear the rattling of the English bone-china in the corner cabinet. It was a word that chilled everyone, wrapping them in a collective taint» (p. 13). Expensive dishware in an expensive house is no defense against the years of discrimination these Italian Americans have internalized. Fran’s desire to go to Italy especially threatens the women who have rejected Italian culture and embraced American gender roles.
Despite Barolini’s narration from Fran’s feminine point of view, the novel as a whole focuses sharply on the men of Fran’s circle. Walter, the catalyst for the trip, meets her periodically in Rome in his government office while keeping up appearances for his wife and co-workers. An impassioned partisan who was imprisoned during the war, he meets Fran during his year as a forestry student in New York. Fran’s Italian professor and lover, Gregorio Balestrini, provides a second example of Italian war experience. Although he proclaims to have been anti-fascist, he adopts a defeatist ambivalence in order to safeguard his university job. Between Fran’s two lovers, Barolini positions cousin Tino Molletone, a dutiful, but fatalistic, civil servant with a wife, children, elderly parents, but insufficient liras. Fran sees Tino as an illustration of how her father’s life would have resulted had Fran’s grandparents not migrated to the United States. Fran is at odds with her father’s generous financial support and gendered expectations, but the wealthy Frank Molletone provides the fourth variation on the masculine forces in her life. Frank’s bitterly complicated relationship with his Italian and American identities is both buffered and exasperated by his financial success and Italy’s precarious post-war position.
Amid Fran’s quotidian activities, Barolini depicts vivid snapshots of Italy. Fran visits Ponte Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Square by moonlight, witnesses a violent political rally in Piazza San Silvestro, and rides the tram through the Fascist-built housing zones of Prati. Barolini even details the pomp and circumstance of the papal chambers where Fran and her parents have an awkward audience with the Pope. However, it is Barolini’s descriptions of Fran’s encounters with nature that suggest spiritual experience. On the slopes of Abruzzi’s Campo Imperatore, skiing becomes a metaphor for identity: «Life at the top of the run was instant, contained in the moment. It was mastering something so intense she was breathless with the joy of it. It was all there, swiftly, in the act, with no before or after. With each run she shed the shell formed by all the perceptions and impasses of her life until then, and flew toward her freedom» (p. 96). Barolini constructs lyrical flights of poetry within the concrete realism of place.
Readers of Barolini’s other novels will find much to compare, but Crossing the Alps’s focus on Fran delves profoundly into the emotions and desires of its main character and explores the shifting development of a young woman learning how to negotiate her intellectual and personal ambitions within and outside of the boundaries established by both her family and society, in Italy and the United States.
The novel partially incorporates the features associated with the recent success of memoirs, novels, and films such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Love, Pray which position Italy as a stereotypical source of inspiration for wealthy, restless women. Barolini addresses this potential criticism with cousin Tino’s resentment of her wealth and privilege and delves into that tension.Crossing the Alps also problematizes that successful narrative while utilizing some of its conventions particularly in the elements of romantic entanglements and pastoral Romanticism. In Barolini’s novel, the consummation of Fran’s desire for Walter turns out to be much more bitterly complicated than typical texts in this genre. Fran’s visit to Gattaia, where Tino’s in-laws farm in the isolated hills region of Apennines, teaches her the beauty of the people and the land, but she negatively experiences the reflection of her American privilege and optimism. The scars of the war’s recent past on the impoverished farmers refract the longer shared history of Fran’s family, while her love affair with the idea of an Italian lover creates new wounds that will help her to map her future.
Because of its subject’s position in between cultures, Crossing the Alps would work well in any number of literature courses focused on transnational identity or ethnic studies. As Fran and Professor Balestrini often quote Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Browning, the novel declares its relationship with previous literary visitors of Italy. Particularly fitting for courses about World War ii and the post-war era, the novel has much in common with Mario Puzo’s The Dark Arena. As a psychological portrait of Italian Americans’ mixed reaction to both fascism and Italy’s shifting alliances during the war, Barolini’s text may also complement history or political science courses and psychology or cultural studies courses that examine historical ethnic identity especially from a gendered stand point.
The specific details of Barolini’s realism reconstruct the historical post-war spaces psychologically and combine these political, cultural and literary echoes into a text that should appeal to many types of readers. Lucky Strike cigarettes, Baroque Angels, dull government offices, glittering ski slopes, and shabby rented rooms emerge from the half-reconstructed ruins of Barolini’s post-war Rome. Yet, these physical details of external space deeply resonate against the rich interiority of the character’s shifting transnational identity. In Crossing the Alps, Barolini renders a portrait of post-war ideological crisis as a grand love affair that is perhaps less between a woman and a man, and more so a heartbreaking spectacle between a woman and two nations.
JoAnne Ruvoli (University of California, Los Angeles)