Just as the devout Catholic visits the Stations of the Cross to commemorate the Passion of Christ before the crucifixion, physically moving around a set of stations in the nave of the church, so does Madott's Francesca, the main character, in this series of interrelated stories about passion and thwarted desires.
Sensual, vivid, intense, Madott's characters drift in and out of the readers' consciousness like dreams. Love is a treacherous business whether it is personified by a controlling lover or unfaithful lover, a charismatic but irresponsible husband, or the intense, angst-inducing love one feels for an only child. The prose is elegant, sometimes oblique, which adds to a sense of mystery about the characters.
Francesca passes from one "station" to another in an almost hypnotic state: falling in love, trying to extricate herself from damaging love affairs, miscarrying a child, marrying an untrustworthy man, bearing a child, and, parting from her husband - all in a state of almost exquisite emotional torture.
Sexual love is potent, threatening, angst inducing. For true sexual passion is tortuous; sexual passion is self-immolating... here it disorients, torments, confounds, whether it is the betrayal and lies of Vivi's husband in "Vivi's Florentine Scarf" or Francesca's relationship with the enigmatic Man of the West in "Waiting (An Almost Love Story)" and Francesca's ex-husband Zachary Hamilton who features in several stories ("Getting Off So Lightly", 'Solitary Man", "Zachary and the Shaman", "Chateau Stories") or her one-time lover Vince ("Powerful Novena of Childlike Confidence").
There is something mesmerizing about these stories but there is also a sense of menace, the sense of the treachery of sexual desire even if it is not acted upon whether it is the story of the art-loving girl searching for a painting in "Afternoon in the Garden of the Palazzo Barberini" who fears that the security guard has lured her into unsafe territory or the fearful Francesca watching her husband destroy his career, and potentially his family as well, in "Zachary and the Shaman".
There are many beautiful scenes, too many to recount here but several come to mind: Francesca and her son observing the remnants of a dead star; Francesca looking at the painted image of the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth and thinking of her lover's mother and sister in "Powerful Novena of Childlike Confidence"; mother and son listening to a children's choir in Spain in "Travel Stories".
In a manner, Elizabeth, Francesca's lover's sister, represents a darker mirror image of Francesca - a woman exploited for her vulnerability as a daughter without rights or power, as a sexual being who must now pay for the sin of conceiving before marriage. Forced into a brutal marriage as a teenager by her parents that she eventually abandons, as well as her young son, Elizabeth disappears only to resurface at her young son's funeral. She is bitter and full of recriminations, accusing all present of having contributed to her son John's death and implicitly to the disastrous consequences of her life's journey. She is what Francesca might have become had she not had the courage to resist the destructive forces in her life.
Unlike the Stations of the Cross, the end of this book does not lead to death but a sort of redemption for Francesca. A reconciliation of sorts.
By the book's end, Francesca has achieved a sort of balance. By returning to her roots in Sicily ("Entering Sicily"), she seems finally to have achieved a state of peace. Perhaps it is reliving and retelling the travails of a beloved grandmother who suffered and loved a great deal (much like Francesca herself). In the tale of Francesca and son traveling to Spain told in the shadow of a dear friend's death ("Travel Stories") and of their later trip to Sardegna ("Cycling in Sardegna") Francesca has finally come into her own - romantic love is no longer the focus of her intense, obsessive love. Maternal love is.
She is independent. She is an established professional with a successful career and supportive boss. She has her son, is separated from Zachary, and she has reached a sort of emotional equilibrium. She learns something that most women eventually learn - men come and go but if you do it right, your child is yours to love, and be loved by, forever.
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