Milena Agus is an up-and-coming Italian writer, who lives in Cagliari, Sardinia, the setting of her award-winning novel that takes place during the final and post years of World War II. At 108 pages, From the Land of the Moon is not only short enough but also intriguing enough to read in one sitting, thanks to the bold and beguiling storytelling voice. The narrator is an unnamed woman recalling the life of her eccentric grandmother, struck by the folly of love. We are lured into the story by the implication her grandmother’s desire for love equates to madness. When her grandmother is a young girl, the people of Cagliari believe she’s from the land of the moon.
Perhaps she is mad. We don’t really know if that’s clinically true or simply how her family and Cagliarians interpret her overwhelming desire for love. She believes love is “the principle thing,” that which alone makes life worth living. Her intense hopes and expectations lead her to believe handsome men who smile at her, love her. She sends them love letters and poems, anticipating their courtship, but they don’t respond. So at the age of 30, in 1943, she lives with her parents, considered an old maid.
And then, an elderly widower, bombed out of his house by the Americans in 1943, is taken in by the family. He marries their old-maid daughter to show his gratefulness. He is kind and undemanding, yet the narrator’s grandmother quietly despairs over the absence of “the principle thing.” After she suffers several miscarriages, she travels to a spa for a cure, and there finds her desired love with an injured Italian war veteran. Nine months after her return home, she gives birth to a son.
The idea of a good, respectful marriage without love versus a marriage with true love at the roots underlies the narrative tension and philosophies. It’s a universal theme uniquely and sensitively tackled by Agus without over-reaching emotions. One nit-pick — because the characters are nameless, I got confused occasionally about who was doing what early on, but that didn’t get in the way of the elegant hope for love the grandmother refuses to dismiss or compromise. Agus concludes her brief, moving story with a surprise ending that made me pause several minutes on the last page.
Update: WOSU Artzine posted TLC’s “An Italian Love Story” 2.14.2011.