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.)