Friends, I would deeply appreciate any of your comments or suggestions for improvement in the following, which is a synopsis of Book II of my imagenovel trilogy “Vittoria’s Island.”
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Book II begins with James writing to his brother Jack saying that Vittoria remains in hiding in a secret location, apparently still reeling from learning she was adopted. “Her identity has been challenged,” James says, “which is something you and I will never experience. We are safe and comfortable in the narrative of our origin.”
James struggles with impatience for information, for resolution. Life, he believes, frequently serves up disturbing events but nevertheless we’re obliged to get over them, and why should Vittoria be exempt? He thinks, too, there’s a positive aspect of the adoption news: Her being different from everyone in her extended family is not imaginary but rather is wholly legitimate—a genetic fact. Vittoria doesn’t look like any of them, and she certainly doesn’t act or think like them, either.
So who, James wonders, are Vittoria’s biological parents? Soon her sister Franchesca, in a transatlantic telephone call, gives James the surprising news that her father had finally yielded to all the questions. Vittoria’s birth mother, he said, was a famous actress who was making a movie in Naples 30 years ago. Which famous actress? The Academy-award winner Maria Marrella. And the father? Her director, Antonio Franzese.
The story, James thinks, is incredible. But then on the other hand it partly explains Vittoria’s eagerness for role-playing and impersonations. And mischief, too. Maria Marrella had been married and divorced a half dozen times. The tabloids regularly ran breathless stories about her romantic involvements with every one of her leading men, as well as a succession of directors. Today this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but 30 years ago? It was one scandal after another, outrageous behavior all around. Is it any wonder Vittoria seems headed in the same direction?
After several weeks of silence, Vittoria finally contacts James. “I have no clue who I am anymore,” she says. James replies that with the news of the adoption her identity becomes more and more clear. It explains more than it hides or confuses. But Vittoria—in a voice that sounds almost child-like—replies that her dad is not her dad, and the family she thought was hers is really not. “I’m so confused,” she whispers. Despite his reassurances, Vittoria hangs up the phone. Apparently she’s not ready to come out of hiding yet.
James goes to the Internet to research the famous actress. He finds an account of the movie Maria Marrella made, her first, when she was 18. Titled “Anna Karenina,” it’s a 1972 Italian-language film directed by Antonio Franzese. And most startling is a collection of publicity stills. Vittoria’s resemblance to the young Maria Marrella—as well as to Antonio Franzese—is unmistakable.
Meanwhile, James tries to ease his worries about his absent Vittoria by continuing to explore the island. He gathers images and information for the book he hopes will make reasonable his rather unreasonable involvement with a woman who is always beyond his reach.
His friend Harold, the professor, is gratifyingly sympathetic. As time goes on, James’ affection for this kindly father figure grows. That Harold fully understands and affirms him is never in doubt. In one of their discussions about love, Harold tells him: “You, my good friend, are like a hunter in pursuit of prey. You are hungry. Thus serious and relentless.”
The hunt, Harold points out, is an early Christian metaphor. St. Augustine describes it as a soul’s search for traces of the Divine in the woods of the material world. James responds that to him his relentless pursuit of Vittoria’s love feels more and more like insanity. Harold replies this might better be compared to addiction, is a matter of brain chemistry, endorphins, and pleasure receptors. Love, though, is always considered a different category.
Also sympathetic to James’ struggle is his brother, Jack, who patiently listens and offers encouragement. After a long silence, though, Jack wonders if James is all right. James replies, betraying considerable agitation:
“No, Jack, I’ve not been contemplating falling off the deep end just because you-know-who continues to hide and I have no bloody idea in hell when she will decide to revisit the real world again, and if she finally does I might say things she’s never heard me say before, but of course I won’t, I’ll just fall right back into the status quo, the maddening routine of me here in Italy and her back there in America, and our future together merely an abstraction, a futile hope, a wisp of smoke that dissipates in the slightest breeze. God damn it all to hell.”
Later, James goes to Ventotene, the remote island where Emperor Agustus exiled his wanton daughter, Giulia Agripinna. Vittoria said many of her old relatives lived there—and frequently cast Stregherian spells. In the strangeness of the place, James feels his passion and anxiety fading. He decides that he may love Vittoria by accepting her silence, and the ambiguity of their relationship. He senses Vittoria’s presence there, as he does when he’s in Ischia, Capri, Ponza. She is his in his mind and heart, and in everything he encounters in this lovely part of the world.
On the sixth week of Vittoria’s disappearance, she calls. James questions her, but gets very short answers. She’s still in acute distress. Yes, she is in a safe place, but she won’t reveal it. When will she return? She doesn’t know. James reminds her that her family is anxiously waiting for her, especially her father, who is distraught. She replies that she’s extremely angry at him for keeping the adoption a secret. Her entire life has been a lie. James replies that once she gets back, she’ll begin to create a new life. A new identity. One that is truly hers, not passed down. She says she has to go.
In subsequent calls, Vittoria reveals that she is seeing a therapist, one who finds her story so fascinating that he has waived his fees. The man wants her to increase the number of sessions from one a week to three. When she announces that it’s time for her to go home and confront her father, the therapist says no, he doesn’t think she is ready for that yet. He wants to see her more. Sensing that Vittoria is enjoying his reaction to the story, James wonders aloud if she is making it up, just to make him upset, or to give him material. She says no, she’s just describing what’s happened. “With you I never know what to believe,” he says. “And you love it,” she replies.
James gets a telephone call from Franchesca, Vittoria’s sister. “My dad had a heart attack and is at Lennox Hill, in intensive care,” she says. “He’s not doing well. I’m so upset. Please let Vittoria know if you speak to her.”
Suspicious, James calls Lennox Hill and gets the ICU nurse. He asks about the status of a patient named Giovanni. The nurse tells him no such patient by that name has been admitted. He asks her to check again. She does, and repeats there is no such patient.
Still another ruse in an annoying succession, James concludes. But then he is sure it was not Vittoria impersonating Franchesca. Their voices are entirely different from each other. James finally decides that Franchesca has apparently taken a page from Vittoria’s book, so to speak. She’ll say anything to get her sister to come back home. But then it might have been her father’s idea. He might have made her to lie to James about a heart attack.
Eventually Vittoria announces she’s finally decided to return home. When James tells her of Franchesca’s fabrication of her father’s heart attack, she’s furious. Vittoria says maybe she should stay away for another six weeks, just to teach them all a lesson. James says, no, you must go back home and talk to your father.
As James awaits details of Vittoria’s homecoming, he meets with Harold who says, surprisingly, that if he’d learned he was adopted, the news would make him happy. Why? Because his father was a drunken abuser, and a virtual illiterate who never brought a book into the house.
Harold relates that he left home after graduating from high school and hitchhiked to New Orleans, where he signed on as a deck hand on a tow that pushed barges to Little Rock via the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. With his saved earnings he enrolled at LSU. His undergraduate honors, scholarships and grants eventually led to a masters and Ph.D. at Harvard.
This academic accomplishment, Harold says, was inspired by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who insisted we must embrace the notion that will is our personal salvation. One wills what has to be, not what is. We are not a slave of predestination, but rather we may choose who we eventually become.
Which, Harold points out, is precisely the great task Vittoria now faces. The news of her adoption has crumbled only the façade of her building. “Pretty soon she’ll see the benefit of putting up a fresh new coat of stucco, in a color of her own choosing,” he says.
When Vittoria gets back home, Giovanni tries to embrace her, but she pushes him away. He tries to tell her about the adoption, but she puts her hands over her ears and hums a song. Then she begins crying. She shuts herself up in her room, refuses to speak to anyone. She isn’t quite as ready as she thought.
In a thoughtful post, Jack says neither he nor James can fully expect to understand the impact the adoption thing is having on Vittoria, because growing up they never got the feeling they were different, or “other.” Identity, he points out, often is fragile. And mysterious. Vittoria now believes—rightly or wrongly—that notions of loyalty and affection and love are meaningless.
“She thus has been stripped of the illusion that she belongs somewhere,” Jack writes. “But even more frightening is that she’s apparently lost the protective barrier that stands between us and the black abyss. She’s now deep into the existential dread that what’s-his-name always talked about. She’s confronting nothing less than her own annihilation.”
James, as usual, is sympathetic. But after another week of Vittoria’s childish behavior he loses patience. In an angry telephone confrontation he tells her she must quit punishing her father and other family members with her silence, and to talk openly about the adoption and the anger and fear it has elicited. It’s time to grow up. At the end of the emotionally draining interchange, Vittoria reluctantly agrees.
On reflection, James realizes that he has all along been insisting that Vittoria do something he, himself, has so far been unable to—which is to finally accept the death of his mom and dad in a boating accident off Cape Horn. He has not yet gotten past his anger, and he avoids all reminders of the incident. It’s time, he decides, do practice what he’s been preaching to Vittoria. Grow up. Accept. And to photograph a sailboat in the harbor exactly like the one that his mom and dad sailed to their deaths.
Then still more disturbing news: Giovanni experiences chest pains. The doctor performs tests and concludes he needs bypass surgery. Vittoria’s 40 days of silence in hiding, and her subsequent continued refusal to speak to him when she got back, apparently was too much for the man. And James wonders what this latest stress might do to Vittoria. He tells her: "I know your dad will get through this. But no matter what happens you have to deal with it like an adult. You may not run away again. That’s no longer an option for you." Vittoria promises not to disappear again. And James wants to believe her.
A few days later Vittoria sends James a maddeningly short sentence saying that following difficult bypass surgery, Giovanni is in intensive care. No further details. Just ominous silence, as usual. Harold gently suggests that if Vittoria didn’t find silence enormously important, he’d be surprised. Because, he says, silence is part of the culture of the Italian family. He quotes a poem by Thomas Cole:
Sing! there shall silence grow in earth and lower heaven,
A silence of deep awe and wondering;
For listening gladly, bend the angels even,
To hear a mortal like an angel Sing.
James tells Harold: “So the lesson I must draw from these lines is to listen gladly.”
"Yes, lad,” Harold replies. “In this difficult time your angel needs your support and understanding. But most especially she needs your acceptance."
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