Household Saints

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1761

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.

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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 stillborn. Catherine grieves for her child and is indifferent to Joseph. He renews his nightly pinochle game, but now he loses to the Falconettis. Mrs. Santangelo loses her knack for making sausages. Business drops off. Fortune has made its turn, but then a miracle occurs—or at least Catherine perceives it as such. On Easter morning she is awakened by the perfume of blooming flowers. The houseplants which she has neglected for months are in full flower, though she thought they were dead. She is elated, ecstatic; for the first time in months she is happy. The only miracle, Joseph tells her, is that she has finally noticed that he has been taking care of the plants; the real miracle is that she goes to bed with him for the first time since the death of their child. On the same day they find Mrs. Santangelo dead; Catherine soon comes into her own, and the luck of the Santangelos returns.

Catherine unexplainedly knows the secret recipe that Mrs. Santangelo used to mutter every night as she made the sausage. The women of the neighborhood are delighted and flock back to Joseph’s shop. Catherine is pregnant but fearful: she remembers that this child was conceived the day Mrs. Santangelo died, and worries that reincarnation may occur. To counteract this possibility, Catherine begins by clearing out the household altar—the pictures of Zio, San Gennara, and the Holy Family, the rosaries and the crucifix. In their place she hangs yellow organdy curtains and decals of bunnies and frolicking lambs. Her baby will be born the “American way,” she decides, “by science.”

Catherine does not, however, hold a winning hand. The uneventful birth of her daughter, Theresa, is virtually the only thing ordinary in her life. Theresa exhibits signs which suggest that Catherine’s concern over reincarnation might have had some basis. As a toddler, she wanders off and is found standing on a stool in front of the holy water font at the church, splashing water all over herself. As soon as she is old enough, she begins gradually to remove the organdy curtains and the bunnies and lambs, replacing them with the crucifix and the household saints of Mrs. Santangelo’s altar. She insists on parochial school, and when she reads the autobiography of St. Theresa, she understands that God has given her a direction: “to ecstasy, with St. Theresa I prefer the monotony of daily toil.” She does her homework, cooks, and cleans as acts of devotion.

When she is in college she meets Leonard Villanova, and she decides that it would be an act of devotion to see that one of God’s children is kept neat and well-groomed and his apartment kept spotless. It is when she is ironing Leonard’s checkered shirt that Jesus appears to her. She offers to wash and iron the two-thousand-year-old shroud, all dirty and torn, that Jesus is still wearing. From her meeting with Jesus it is but a short step to the psychiatric hospital, where she is put on lithium, but nothing stops her from continuing in the “little way” of St. Theresa. In the hospital she insists upon scrubbing floors and ironing sheets. In the laundry she feels she is in the presence of Jesus.

One Sunday, when Catherine and Joseph come to visit, they find their daughter ill with the flu. She had been playing pinochle the night before, a “normal” action Joseph believes, until he hears that she has played with God and Jesus and St. Theresa—the girls against the boys. Furthermore, Theresa tells Joseph, “God was cheating.” That night she dies and all nature seems to celebrate. The hospital garden comes into full bloom—daffodils, violets, and forget-me-nots line the walls, and in Theresa’s room is an overpowering fragrance of roses. Joseph insists that a miracle has taken place, and what is more, he says that the red marks on his daughter’s hands are stigmata. Catherine will not agree. The odor is perfume, she insists, and the marks, mosquito bites. If Theresa had lived in another time, a nun says, she might have been called a saint. If there had been lithium in Jesus’ time, Joseph replies, there would have been no saints, and, what is more, John the Baptist would have been given occupational therapy.

Catherine does not want Theresa to spend eternity with people lighting candles to her, so she tells Joseph not to tell anyone what happened, but word gets around, as God slaps his winning cards on tabletops. In the neighborhood people start talking; they remember her “holy” actions and invent even more.

Throughout the novel there is the constant pressure of the neighborhood against which the story of the Falconettis and the Santangelos is told. Neighbors act as audience and as chorus, commenting on the action and underscoring basic themes. The tone of the novel, sometimes light, other times sardonic, is unruffled and consistent even in the narration of fantastic and implausible happenings. Indeed, the intertwining of the fantastic and the ordinary, compelling the reader to accept the bizarre on the same plane as the realistic, is the novel’s most compelling feature. Zio’s ghost, for example, is always announced by the strong smell of cigar smoke. Nicky gives up the struggle to find Madame Butterfly for a wife and runs himself through with a Japanese sword; his ghost appears on television in a sailor’s suit singing like Pinkerton with Madame Butterfly. Nicky’s father, Lino, finds this circumstance altogether credible, since it was the advent of television, together with his son’s strange compulsion and utter lack of ability for radio repair work, that Lino sees as the source of all his bad luck. In the world of Mulberry Street, people expect miracles, and miracles occur.

Francine Prose’s remarkable novel has the spellbinding intonations and cadences of an expert storyteller. Household Saints is a superb book.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873

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 power struggle that develops between Catherine and Mrs. Santangelo after the marriage becomes overt when Catherine brings African violets to Joseph’s apartment and puts one next to Saint Gennaro. Though Mrs. Santangelo objects, Catherine wins the day; she wins the day again when, pregnant, she determines that she will help Joseph in the shop rather than take up housewifely duties. Mrs. Santangelo has other weapons, however, especially the power of prophecy, and when Catherine watches Joseph kill turkeys Mrs. Santangelo says that her baby will look like a chicken. Prophecy is strong, and Catherine’s firstborn dies. Yet the young eventually win out over the old, and after a period of mourning the loss of her powers, Mrs. Santangelo dies.

Theresa’s birth, the result of a second conception, takes place in almost exactly the midway point in the novel, and thereafter she becomes its focus, with Catherine and Joseph reacting to Theresa’s turns and moves. Despite Catherine’s best intentions to rear Theresa as a modern American child, somehow Mrs. Santangelo’s influences seem dominant and Theresa turns out to be more religious even than Mrs. Santangelo. From the time that Theresa is old enough to go to school, she wants to go to parochial school, wants to be a nun, and desires to cultivate the saints. Despite her parents’ efforts to turn her in different directions, Theresa pursues her calling much like a monomaniac.

Since her parents refuse to allow her to enter a convent and be a nun, Theresa latches on to the next best thing: She will be a saint like Saint Therese, the little flower, whose life was a testimony to modesty, humility, and service in the form of mundane and menial tasks. Theresa’s sexual liaison with Leonard comforts her mother, who has been looking for some signs of normalcy in her daughter, and acts as the focal point for Theresa’s breakdown. One day, Leonard returns to his apartment to find that Theresa has been ironing one red-and-white-checked shirt for eight hours. Theresa insists that there are many checked shirts and that Joseph has provided them as he has the loaves and fishes. Moreover, Jesus has been there with her and has thanked her for taking care of one of his flock.

Theresa does not recover, and soon after her death rumors start that all the patients at the hospital recovered immediately once she was dead, the patients and their relatives declaring that the hospital flowers had healing powers. The community also declares that since his daughter’s death, Joseph never cheated customers again. This last statement, at least, is false, since Joseph begins to cheat more and more, and the women tolerate it as they have before. Soon people take sides about the consequences of Theresa’s life. Only the elderly take the story as relevant to a saint’s life. They shush one another and listen to the sound of the cards, for they believe that with that sound God is sending a saint.

Context

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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 are forbidden in Catholicism. In the family, a man’s role is that of breadwinner and arbitrator; a woman’s role is that of wife and mother.

Left without a wife, Lino Falconetti expects his daughter to do the necessary cooking and cleaning; his son, Nicky, “works” with his father, though he is incompetent. In addition, Nicky accompanies his father to the men’s pinochle games. The men understand that a newly married man will spend less time playing pinochle, but they also expect that in due time a wife will be pregnant and will turn the husband out of her bed for a given period. In addition, as women get older husbands spend less time at home, preferring the company of men. For the most part, women’s social lives are limited to occasional outings with their husbands and daily trips to the market, where they meet other women like themselves. With few exceptions, a man and woman will marry at the appropriate time, have children, make do with each other, provide for older relatives, and die, mostly in their own beds. In Household Saints, there are few exceptions. One is Nicky, who kills himself in despair; others are priests or nuns, whose way of life is an acceptable alternative.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

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.

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