Dear Blog Readers — Today my post is dedicated to a review of a book written by a new friend of mine, Lynn Rodolico, followed by a chat with the author.
Lynn Rodolico’s “Small Change” is a tender and eloquent story of a Swedish-American couple who adopt twin babies found in a dumpster. The book tackles many of life’s big themes: birth and death, love and marriage, parenting the young and caring for the old, but most of all it is about mothers and children. Rodolico has created a beautifully crafted novel which pulls you imperceptibly into the lives of its characters, page after page until you feel you are with them, joining in daily conversations, sharing their concerns over important questions and partaking in their simple pleasures whether it is eating a meal or watching a child. When I reached the last page, I was sad to say goodbye to the characters I had become attached to.
Following the adoption, the protagonists, Christine and Thomas, move from London to Florence to join Thomas’s aging mother in her villa on a hillside above the Renaissance city. There, the couple combines the joy of raising their new children with the pain of watching the slow decline of Thomas’s mother, while pursuing an established family passion, helping children in need.
“Small Change” moves from the intellectual and professional pursuit of aiding the needy children of the world to the normal, daily care of healthy, happy children. I realized I was going to love “Small Change” when in its first pages, Rodolico cites one of my favorite children’s books “Make Way for Ducklings,” by Robert McCloskey and ends with another of my favorite children’s books, “Are you my Mother?” by P.D. Eastman.
Lynn Rodolico has an extraordinary eye for detail — her descriptions and conversations are so precise and realistic that the reader feels she must have been there. When she describes Christine’s struggle to care for newborn twins, her details of bottles and burping carried me back to the years when it seemed that feeding and burping was all I ever did. Leaky diapers, curdled milk down the backs of shirts, the hunt for the burping towel, it was all so familiar.
It is with the details that Rodolico gracefully weaves together the young and old, the beginning and end of life. Here is the view of Christine arriving at the villa in Florence and seeing her aging mother-in-law: “Perhaps it is the comparison to the smooth-skinned newborn in her arms that accentuates the wrinkles in her mother-in-law’s face. Perhaps it is the badly applied make-up, an uneven coat of unnatural pancake color that stops abruptly at the jaw bone, leaving the untouched neck a pallid, vulnerable white.” The slow decline of Thomas’ mother was so precisely described that I found myself recalling the details of the decline of my husband’s grandmother who died in her mid-nineties. When “Small Change’s” Anne says to her son, “this tired old husk is just waiting for a strong wind to blow it away,” it reminded me of similar conversations.
In contrast, Rodolico describes the exquisite pleasure in watching two-year-old twins:
“They… are wearing similar fairy princess costumes. The starchy tutus are short enough that Elizabeth notes their diapers have been replaced by thick cotton training pants. They each hold a star-shaped wand, and from the way they are swinging it, Elizabeth is either being sprinkled with fairy dust or being knighted.”
Here are the twins again: “The children have moved on to sprinkle their joy across the garden, blessing the flowers, a terrified cat, a wrought-iron bench situated beneath a weeping willow tree at the far edge of the courtyard. The girls are carefree and articulate, distilling a trail of babbling nonsense as light-hearted as a Puccini duet.”
Rodolico describes the normal shortcomings of children with lovely metaphors: “Anna hasn’t inherited her father’s ability to carry a tune, but it doesn’t stop her from singing. She marches through the lyrics like a woodcutter chopping a tree, hitting every note at exactly the same spot.”
Christine does not have it easy. She has lost her parents one after another in difficult circumstances, and has had several miscarriages. She is a highly-talented translator but eager to put aside her career to become a mother. She is deeply in love with her husband but lacks close friends in which she can confide her sadness and her fears.
Rodolico must be a culinary expert. I was astonished at her detailed description of every item of food in the book, moving easily from Swedish — apple pancakes and Pepparkarkor biscuits to Italian ones –tagliatelle al ragu and ribollita, with stops in the English countryside for tea and a picnic in Epping Forest. She manages to tie the food and drink (Glögg in Sweden, Tea in England, Wine in Italy) to culture and traditions of each country. A lovely line in the book is when the charming, blushing British Earl Julian admits to his best friend that he has fallen head over heels for the beautiful Italian-American because “It is the way she poured tea.” And, as if just for me, there is even an American mother who brings Christine a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
Rodolico gives such a splendid description of a wedding party at the Villa outside of Florence that she gives F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” a run for his money. She left me wondering which is better, a luxurious party in West Egg on Long Island or at Villa L’Antica in the hills above Florence: “The villa stands tall and stately inside an ancient fortress wall which is surrounded by far-reaching olive trees. Torches have been positioned along the parapet and have already been lit in anticipation of dusk. Spot lights illuminate the upper limbs of an ancient Cedar of Lebanon and the other secular trees in the garden. In the inner courtyard, a string quartet plays Handel’s Water Music…..she (Christine) doesn’t want to leave the view, not yet, not with the light shifting dramatically, turning the far hills violet where the sun still shines….All along the Arno Valley, the sun reflects its last rays, charging the pale blue sky with streaks of orange and pink. Across the valley, up in the hills of Fiesole and San Domenico, and Monte Morello, the facade of the Renaissance villas glow warmly with reflected light. …the clink of Baccarat crystal resonates clearly across the garden like an orchestra’s cymbals….”
Rodolico unabashedly tackles questions of love–first and foremost a mother’s love for her children, but there is also marital love, and the love between a grown child and an aging parent. She touches on questions of secrets and lies, and leaves the reader wondering whether it is appropriate or not to reveal an important secret if it can cause pain to someone we love.
“Small Change” is sprinkled with quotes from Auden, Wordsworth, Rilke, Millay, Keats, and Eliot, with the educated characters sprinkling their conversation with apt quotes. She cites one of my favorite poems, “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day
Throughout the book I found myself relating to Christine, the mother of the twins. Her fight with her husband over traveling to Nepal during her first pregnancy brought back to mind a ferocious fight I had with my own husband who wanted to stop me from going to war-torn Sarajevo when I was pregnant with my first-born. Pope John Paul II resolved that one for us by canceling his plans to visit.
Living in Italy, I find the book rich with details of life here: the mother-in-law’s cook Rosa notes every meal served to guests so as not to risk the “brutta figura” of serving the same dish twice. Someone tried to convince me to do that, too, but I know how to cook so few items well that my guests are better off getting the same dishes every time.
“Small Change” has a mission: to help children. The story begins with two newborns found in a dumpster, who would have died if a young doctor hadn’t heard a “mewing” noise as she was throwing out her trash. The book focuses on a people who dedicate themselves to helping suffering children all over the globe. Half the profits from “Small Change” will be donated to children’s charities.
MEETING THE AUTHOR
I took the train to Florence to meet with Lynn Rodolico and learn more about “Small Change”. As the “Freccia Rossa” (Red Arrow) train charged north from Rome, I stared at the rolling green hills of Umbria and Tuscany. As I zipped past little towns perched on hills in the distance, I felt the chaos and tension of Rome easing out of me.
Lynn is a tall, elegant woman with long, beautiful fingers and green eyes. She has thick salt-and -pepper hair that frames her face. As we talked throughout the day, I wondered how she could have such flawless skin when she spends so many hours under the Tuscan sun driving a tractor through olive groves.
Lynn lives on the hillside of the Arno valley that looks down on Florence. Standing at the ancient fortress wall surrounding the family Villa, we could see the Cupola of Florence’s Duomo in the distance and the town of Fiesole on the other side of the valley. The 15th century villa is surrounded by 64 acres (24 hectares) of olive groves. Lynn and her husband, Antonino, produce oil from the olives which they sell around the globe.
Lynn divides her time between driving her tractor, caring for the olive trees, and writing novels.
Lynn told me that she began writing “Small Change” in February 2012 when she woke one night from a dream with the image: “twins abandoned in the snow.” She sat down and began to write—and couldn’t stop. The novel was completed in four months. As she explained, “During that period I would regularly be awakened in the night by an image. I couldn’t resist being in the company of the characters. It was like a love affair with all these amazing people.”
Lynn says it is a book about mothers as much as it is about children. Moreover, it is also a book about love: love between a husband and wife, a girlfriend and boyfriend, a mother and child, a child and its parents. Lynn explained that her intent was to show, “different kinds of love. Love is not always simple or easy. Love is a responsibility. “Small Change” describes the complications of love, not just the fresh glow.”
Lynn knows a few things about love. She came to Italy in 1985 to finish writing a novel and met Antonino on her first day in Florence, in a villa similar to the one described as Thomas’s mother’s house near Fiesole. As Lynn told me, “He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian. We didn’t speak the same language, but we shared a love of language. We never made the mistake of assuming we understood what the other was saying, and we continue to listen closely to what each other has to say, even though we both speak English and Italian now. “
They share their love of words and a passion for writing, in both languages. Antonino translated Lynn’s last book, “Two Seas” into Italian. She said, “He spent nine months of his life, day after day, word after word. I fell in love with him all over again as he was translating “Two Seas”. He treated my prose as carefully and as lovingly as he cared for our daughters when they were babies.” This summer he will translate “Small Change” into Italian as she works on her next book.
Lynn and Antonino also share a passion for hard, physical labor. Lynn told me that in the harvest season, which can last anywhere from three weeks to two months, she doesn’t attempt to write. Work starts at sunrise and the day is long and intense. “It is exhilarating work, and exhausting,” she said.
Lynn has provided a detailed account of the work involved in an olive harvest through her protagonist Kate in the novel in “Two Seas,” “The harvest is demanding but it is beautiful, too, as long as Kate remembers to pause from time to time, to raise her gaze to the distant hills, to photograph mentally the images as they present themselves. The Arno valley is swept clean of summer’s heavy air, the clouds are high, the sun is bright but not hot. Unless it rains, it is a pleasure to be outdoors. Surely, they would have lost the experience of autumn if they hadn’t been harvesting, if they had been sitting warm and cozy indoors in front of the fireplace.”
As we sit at her kitchen table, following a brief tour of the rooms below their home where they collect the olives and bottle the oil, Lynn tells me, “During the harvest, we even dream of olives. I have even found olives in the cuffs of my pajamas. And naturally, we enjoy our newly pressed olive oil with everything we eat.”
At the end of our day together, riding down the small, curving road through the olive trees back to the train station for my return trip to Rome, I felt sad. I wanted to stay longer at Villa Arrigo and drive Lynn’s tractor, make olive oil and write. But my responsibilities in Rome were calling me. I will return to Florence, and in the meantime, I will enjoy Lynn’s eloquent vision through “Small Change” and “Two Seas.”
Here is the Book Trailer: