Mother Tongue is a warm and wonderful book. Its twenty- nine chapters, any of which can be read independently but the sum of which constitute a coherent commentary on the expatriate experience, bristle with fresh ideas and sharp insights. The author’s powers of observation are extraordinary, as can be seen, for example, in her description of Signora Biocchi, a nosy neighbor in Parma, who is described as “leaning over her balcony taking her first reconnaissance smoke of the day.”
The book is filled with insights that in very few words capture precisely a mood, a reaction, or an immutable truth. In writing about professional translators, Wilde-Menozzi calls them at their best “egoless invisibilities.” It is the accuracy and appropriateness of such observations that makeMother Tongue a delight to read.
Besides offering insights into Italian life as sensitively and flawlessly as the author has, this book comments cogently on many important facets of life, most of them presented more sharply and strikingly from an expatriate point of view than they could be by an insider in the society being written about. Wilde-Menozzi lives in an identity limbo, delicately poised between two worlds, one she has left in the United States and one into which she has been thrust in northern Italy, where she is relatively happy and well adjusted but where she will never experience the acceptance and feeling of belonging known by those native to the area.
Mother Tongue poses many questions that will interest readers who have followed the feminist movement in recent years. At Stanford University, the author, a single mother with one child, Clare, meets Paolo Menozzi, who has lived most of his life in the ancient Italian city of Parma. Ten months after she and Paolo marry, Paolo is offered a coveted chair at the University of Parma, a position too tempting for him to reject. As often happens in such cases, the wife and adopted daughter—Wallis and six-year-old Clare—put their lives on hold to follow the career-advancing father, Paolo. This means not only that Wallis must give up her professional affiliation but also that she and her daughter must move into a culture wholly different from the one they know best. Although there is a sense of high adventure in making such drastic leaps in life, the accompanying uncertainty of such wrenching change often is difficult to deal with, as is suggested in the author’s recounting of troubled dreams, many of them reported in detail, that all three members of the family have after their relocation.
Wilde-Menozzi has a deep appreciation of Italy’s past and of the history of Parma and its environs. She adapts reasonably well to her new life, although to do so, she must create her own goals and practice a level of self-discipline that demands enormous personal commitment. Besides being caught up in an Italian bureaucracy that, throughout its history (which the author recounts with considerable understanding and accuracy), has bewildered both Italians and visitors to their country, Wilde-Menozzi has to cope with the details of running a household in circumstances that sometimes prove daunting. Because Parma has a damp climate, the bed linens and mattresses need frequent airing, which involves removing them from the beds and hanging them out the windows on sunny days so that they can dry out and lose the musty smell that the continual dampness causes. One day when Wilde-Menozzi is performing this ritual, she discovers that a scorpion the size of a child’s hand has been lurking in the bed she and Paolo share. She is terrified both by the scorpion and by the thought that it had been in her bed for some length of time. She sucks the offending insect into the vacuum cleaner, then, with great subtlety, employs it symbolically. Immediately after telling about it, she writes of her mother-in-law’s surgery that reveals cancer of the stomach, lymph nodes, and liver, a cancer that has lurked undetected in Alba’s body just as the potentially dangerous scorpion has lurked undetected in the matrimonial bed.
The author then, with consummate skill, uses her recounting of the initial stages of Alba’s terminal illness to reveal other aspects of Italian life. In this society, one does not reveal to someone who is seriously ill that his or her illness is terminal. Alba’s doctor, Pietro, also is her son. He tells his mother as she is emerging from the anesthetic that she had gallstones and that they have been removed successfully. This sort of deception continues until Alba’s death, although the old woman, reading people’s...
(The entire section is 1877 words.)