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Olivia Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Rossner has once again created a story in which relationships are the primary focus — between parent and child, between husband and wife — and in which the need for love and approval are central. The "weight of the past" in this book involves not only cultural roots, as already discussed, but also one's personal past, as he/she relates to family.

Caroline felt orphaned as a child, not literally but spiritually, since her parents were always busy at home with their academic responsibilities, her older siblings always seemed to take precedence in family activities, and her cooking talents were admired but undervalued. As a result, she gravitated toward a series of loving housekeeper/cooks, including the beloved Anna Cherubini, whom she followed to Italy and mourned as a mother upon her death. Out of fear that her parents will not approve of her life with Angelo in Italy, she delays inviting them, then resents being displaced by her daughter Olivia in their hearts during their visit. This competition for Olivia's affection persists throughout the book, and her need for parental approval does as well.

Mother-daughter bonds are especially significant in Olivia. Caroline is appalled to be labeled just a "birth mother" by Olivia and longs to be her real mother, a role that in Olivia's mind is held by her father's mistress Mirella. All Olivia seems able to remember of their early years together in Italy is that her mother was always angry with her, as a result of some incidents that arose from the pressures of being the chef at the family restaurant. Caroline cannot get this perceived failure as a mother out of her mind and, in fact, desires a baby with Leon mainly to get a second chance. She loves spending time with her sister's son Max and later with Leon's children because they can help fill "the gaping hole Livvy had left in my heart." Yet she acknowledges that, while these other children bring her joy, "ho one of them had given me the intense pleasure my own daughter once had, or left me as desolate as she had more recently." She sees Livvy's coming baby as a means to "redeem myself with my grandchild for the sins, real and imagined, visited upon my child."

Olivia, for all her hard exterior with her mother, desperately wants her love and approval as well. She is a very believable adolescent daughter, with the typical love-hate feelings toward her mother. Her perceived rejection by her mother at age ten, by Mirella after her father's betrayal, and now by her adored father (for his new wife Annunciata) have left her especially vulnerable. But not until the crisis of her pregnancy and the birth of her child is she able to allow herself to become friends with her mother, to admit that "if you think I don't remember you were right about everything, you're wrong."

Male-female relationships in this book all seem to be marked by a domineering male, whose behavior is sometimes overt and sometimes more subtle. Angelo demands obedience, and Caroline usually complies. She accepts his double standard regarding wives and mistresses and his macho attitudes about how to raise Olivia. Many of the same patterns emerge later in Livvy's relationship with Pablo, perhaps because of the men's similar cultural backgrounds, although Pablo is a much nicer man. Leon,...

(The entire section is 852 words.)