Household Saints

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

With sureness and grace Francine Prose has created a special world that has all the fascination of Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo. Like García Márquez, Prose writes of myth, legend, and life. She has the same impressive ability to demonstrate the birth and evolution of legend within the framework of earthy characters whose lives are governed by myth and ritual, where the dead do not die, where innocence is incorruptible, where life is a matter of luck—a card game—and where God not only deals the hands but also cheats.

The metaphor of life as a card game is intricately woven throughout the novel. The Santangelos, Joseph and his mother are lucky. Joseph is a butcher, and his business thrives. His mother’s sausages, made from a secret family recipe, are so good that they draw people like a powerful magnet from as far away as upstate New York and the eastern tip of Long Island. Joseph cheats his customers and is a master at weighing his thumb, but they love him for the attention he gives them. Joseph’s card-playing partner, Frank Manzone, who owns a vegetable stall, is also lucky. He is called Midas, because everything he touches turns to gold—his wife is the best cook, his daughters are beautiful, his sons are smart, he makes the best wine in Little Italy, and his brother in New Jersey can grow cabbages even in a blizzard.

The Falconettis, on the other hand, come from an ill-starred line. The family history is one of crops destroyed by locusts when no one else for miles around was struck and by plagues that strike only the Falconettis. Lino, the father, has a radio shop, but television is ruining his business. Nick, his son, is of little help. Obsessed with a fantasy of Madame Butterfly, his mind is constantly filled with music of the opera. Catherine, his daughter, is a runt at seventeen. She looks more like a boy than a girl and is such a smart aleck that boys avoid her.

Joseph Santangelo, Frank Manzone, and Lino and Nick Falconetti have a regular pinochle game every night, and regularly Lino and Nick lose to Joseph and Frank. During an unprecedented heat wave that threatens even the business of Frank and Joseph and when the Falconettis have lost their money, in order to prolong the game, Lino offers to put up his daughter Catherine, in return for a chance to cool off in Joseph’s meat locker. Joseph has no interest in Catherine, and because these wild bets made after money is gone are customarily forgotten, accepts. He wins, of course, but whether he cheats to do so is not clear.

The next day heaven intervenes. The long, hot drought is broken by a thunderstorm which sends the temperature down and the women running to the market to buy meat for dinner. This time, when Catherine comes into Joseph’s shop to buy sausage, he sees her with new eyes. When Joseph recalls that Catherine is a virgin, he suddenly understands the lure of an untouched girl. So Joseph insists on collecting his bet, much to the consternation of Lino, who was drunk and does not remember the stakes.

The neighborhood is intrigued by the plot that is developing, by the metaphor of the card game, and by the bittersweet romance. The week before the ceremony becomes another ritual—like Christmas. Everyone prepares a delicacy for the feast. Married couples accept the metaphor. “Isn’t that how it was with us,” they remind each other; “I won you in a card game.” Only Catherine does not know. Years later, when she learns the truth, Joseph tells her that he cheated that night, that he palmed a few extra hearts from the deck. She replies: “Isn’t that always the way? You win your husband in a card game.”

Only Mrs. Santangelo objects to the marriage. She prays to one of her household saints, San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, asking not for a miracle, but for just a simple explanation of why anyone would want to marry a Falconetti. It is not from San Gennaro, however, that she gets an answer, but from her dead husband, after she burns a candle in front of his picture. “Zio,” she says, “how can a smart boy like our Joseph marry a Falconetti?” Zio’s ghost answers: “Man deals and God stacks the deck.”

For a while the cards do seem to be stacked in Catherine’s and Joseph’s favor—but not for long. Their first baby is...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Combining ribald humor and extravagant mythos, Francine Prose tells a story about two Italian American families and makes them emblematic of the entire community of Little Italy. The novel is an attempt to reveal how religious beliefs and chance happenings determine a family’s destiny.

Household Saints opens in the midst of a heat wave so severe as to cause the people in the neighborhood to eschew meat as part of their diet; thus for the period of the heat wave, Joseph Santangelo’s business at the butcher shop is as bad as Lino Falconetti’s radio repair shop is all the time. Not having much to do, the men while away time by playing pinochle. On one fateful evening, Joseph opens his refrigerator and a blast of cold air hits the men. When Joseph closes the door, Lino asks him to open it again, but Joseph refuses. The argument is settled by a bet—Lino’s daughter against an open refrigerator door. Joseph wins and decides to claim Catherine for his wife. Catherine’s acceptance of Joseph’s proposal is a manifestation of her naïveté that has been nurtured by a steady diet of Hollywood films. For Catherine, Joseph is a kind of Humphrey Bogart, which must make her a kind of Lauren Bacall.

Mrs. Santangelo is not so accepting. She calls immediately upon Saint Gennaro, whom she believes to be her patron saint, to explain what Joseph could possibly see in Catherine. A statue of Gennaro occupies a prominent place on Mrs. Santangelo’s altar, which takes up most of the family’s mantelpiece. Next to Gennaro is a plaster Madonna and a photo of Mrs. Santangelo’s late husband, Zio, who after his death is, Mrs. Santangelo believes, a frequent visitor.

At her marriage, Catherine, slightly tipsy from Champagne, thinks of her wedding overladen with food and drink as being similar to the marriage at Cana where Jesus is said to have changed water into wine. In Household Saints, miracles line up one after the other—some holy, some secular. Saint Gennaro holds back a volcano with his arms; Joseph opens Catherine with his thumb, which Catherine also thinks of as a miracle.


(The entire section is 873 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The women’s issues that underlie Household Saints are related to a past time and place. The novel is set in New York City in September, 1949, four years after the end of World War II, a war that brought about a change in social mores lasting until the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970’s. The culture that arose after World War II called for single-family housing and a new kind of menu, typified in Household Saints by Augie and his wife’s taste for white bread and bologna, which he offers as a substitute for Joseph’s sausage. Augie sells his part of the butcher shop to Joseph, moves away from Little Italy, eschews Old World habits, and like most other Americans, buys into the new American culture.

Otherwise, life in the Italian community from the 1950’s until 1966 is unchanged. The community lives untouched, it appears, by the outside world. No references are made to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rise of the Black Power movement, much less to early attempts to define a new role for women. Children live in the same large apartments with their parents and then support their parents when the parents get older. Joseph cares for his mother in the way that she once cared for him. When he marries, Joseph brings Catherine into the house that is ruled by his mother, and Catherine adjusts to it, gradually making the changes that she believes are important. Power struggles develop, but they do not break up the families; divorces...

(The entire section is 468 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Booklist. LXXVII, June 1, 1981, p. 1292.

Hogan, Randolph. “The Butcher Won a Wife.” The New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1981, 12. Hogan’s review is a critique of the novel. Lavish in his praise, he points out that in only a few pages, Prose is able to establish most of the elements that will form the pattern that dictates the direction of the lives of her characters, as well as the structure of the novel itself. Hogan makes more of the bad luck of the Falconettis than other reviewers do.

Kirkus Reviews. Review of Household Saints. 49 (April 15, 1981): 529. Calls the novel a folk-mystical/quasi-comedic tale, claiming that the characters in the novel are so well drawn that a reader accepts the miracles and the initial assumption—that even God tilts the scales and cheats at some gigantic pinochle game that affects the lives of people, in this case Joseph and his family and friends.

Nerboso, Donna L. Review of Household Saints. Literary Journal, June 1, 1981, 1244. Nerboso points to Prose’s major achievement: the writing of a narrative rich in detail that meshes the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, and thus moves the characters from the commonplace to the mystic.

Publishers Weekly. CCIX, May 8, 1981, p. 247.

Strouse, Jean. “Sausages and Saints.” Newsweek 98, no. 5 (August 3, 1981): 72. Strouse admires the novel’s striking style, incisive characterization, texture in the details of setting and character, and impressive and illuminating meshing of madness and grace. Each of the characters is troubled with some aspect of the supernal, from Joseph’s lucky thumb to Catherine’s miraculous knowledge of Carmela’s recipe for the sausage; from Nicky’s obsession with Madame Butterfly to Carmela’s sightings of her dead husband.