Sunday, July 6, 2014

Toscanelli's Ray by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Let's start with some information about the author taken from the back of her novel. Wallis Wilde-Mendozzi grew up in Wisconsin, lives in Parma, Italy, "where she has participated in Italian life for more than thirty years." She's published memoirs: Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy and The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy; a collections of essays: L'Oceano รจ dentro di noi ("The Ocean is Within Us); and poetry: Heron Songs. Toscanelli's Ray is her first novel.

The title refers to a solar clock. Around 1468 an Italian mathematician and astronomer Toscanelli devised a way to mark the solstice to the half second by allowing a ray of sunlight through the Florence Cathedral's dome and touch circular white marble slab in the floor. Today, thanks to slight changes in Earth's movement, it is no longer accurate. Nonetheless, crowds gather to see the spectacle, and the novel's action takes place during that day one day.

The characters include an Italian professor; his much-younger, pregnant assistant; an American sandtherapist; a Nigerian prostitute and her child; a Bulgarian prostitute; a Florentine peasant and his wife, and more. We have access to their thoughts, their feelings, and—for the most part—their histories. The stories shift from character to character within the chapters, and, although people speak, the book has no quotation marks. It doesn't need them; it's clear what is speech and what is not, but I'm impressed that a publisher (Cadmus Editions, San Francisco) would publish it.

Because Wilde-Menozzi is clearly writing from within her experience, Toscanelli's Ray is an enormously rich with its scenes of contemporary Italian life, both high and low. Each of the characters has a story and the stories touch and resonate. The American ex-pat translates at the Nigerian whore's court appearance. The whore's pimp decides to sell her child, and to save her the Bulgarian takes her to a convent for safety, which seems like hell to the little girl. The professor had been married to the American sandtherapist who, in digging on her property, may have discovered an Etruscan tomb, which agitates her Italian neighbors.

Because Wilde-Menozzi is such an accomplished writer, her novel is rich and interesting in character and information: "There were many things to consider, professor Milandri thought as he held a slide of Santa Croce up to the light in the Chapel of the Cross. And popped it in the machine. Its travertine green and white marble never disappointed. How many did he need to show to make clear that the great cathedrals had the same east-west orientation? Santa Maria del Fiore. Santo Spirito. They faced outward toward the city itself as a social pact but they all lined up on an axis that was sun determined. From that point he could move on to the bifurcation that occurred between astrology and astronomy in the world of Copernicus and Galileo..."

One more quick sample, this from the therapist's perspective: "As Susan looked down at the sand, the emptiness around her, especially in the red chair where she usually sat, drew closer. No one with benevolent eyes was keeping her company as she kept her patients company. No one was listening, attentive, studying the silences, the facial movements, the crouching shoulders, the jerking legs, participating in the patient's investigation changed by the interaction, as she so often was changed, as the one who kept watch. With the leaded windows closed, the library was rather cool."

I recommend Toscanelli's Ray if you've been to Florence. I recommend it if you would like to go to Florence. And I recommend it if you are interested in what a interesting writer can do with words.

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