Monday, February 08, 2010

Queen of the Big Time and The Feasting Season

The Feasting Season, by Nancy Coons and The Queen of the Big Time by Adrianna Trigiani are roughly the same genre of novel, what used to be called "chick lit" but is now just considered 'novels that appeal to women' because chick lit was relegated to the pink ghetto of 'literature that isn't serious enough to be considered worthy of anything but critical contempt.' (Please note that I, personally, loved chick lit books, especially those written by such marvelous storytellers as Jennifer Weiner and Cecelia Ahern, very talented writers indeed)
Unfortunately, these two books couldn't be more different from one another.
"Feasting Season" has a gorgeous cover, and it starts out well, with Meg Parker, an American travel book writer living in the Lorraine countryside in France with her British husband Nigel, a sexist jerk who takes her and their two children completely for granted.
Meg's work isn't considered important by her husband, who also seems to feel that caring for his offspring should be completely the job of his wife, so that he can spend hours getting drunk with his fellow Brits in a local pub.
Meanwhile, poor Meg is left with a boatload of mommy guilt for having to leave her children to travel the French countryside to work on her dream book about French history, seen through the eyes of a photographer, Jean Jacques Chabrol.
Unfortunately, Meg is not terribly bright or strong on morality, because she soon discovers that not only is this ugly Frenchman bored with the idea of her book and reluctant to drive to the historical sites to shoot them, he knows before they get there that a majority of these places are either in unrecognizable ruins or they have been torn down completely, or turned into gaudy tourist traps. Being the creep he is, he doesn't tell Meg this, of course, but lets her become embarrassed, time and again, while he takes her from one fabulous feast of local cuisine (mostly at the homes of his many friends) to another and grumbles about everything, never offering any explanation of his life or background, and smoking constantly. Meg finally catches on to researching the sites first, but that still doesn't seem to help, and the book is always in a state of half-on, half off, with Meg struggling to write in her basement bunker while her ridiculous husband tries to have a 'solar' conservatory put in next to it.
Soon Meg begins an ill-advised affair with Chabrol, who takes many photos of her eating or sleeping and adds one-line emails about how sensual she looks, which is all it takes for Meg to toss off her vows and just rut around the French countryside with the skeezy photog.
On one of her week-long sojourns with the photog, her husband pays a surprise visit, and upon discovering her affair, Meg flees to parts unknown instead of dealing with the consequences of her actions like an adult.
She finally decides to go home to her husband and children, and revamp her book into a history of France through its food, but though she has supposedly reconciled with her boorish husband, she gets a call from her publisher to do another book with Chabrol and she immediately makes plans to run off again. That's where the book ends, too, which is quite unsatisfying.
I found Megs spineless and stupid attitude toward men to be frustrating. It seemed obvious that if this sleazy photog rings her chimes that much, she should divorce her husband and take her children away to go live with him. I didn't really understand her attraction to Chabrol, however, as her descriptions of him made him sound skinny, ugly, tobacco-stained and mean. But her husband was such a jerk Chabrol came out smelling like a rose in comparison, I suppose.
The prose of the book was strong and elegant, and the plot fairly flew along. The characters were a bit hard to fathom or like, but I suppose that is why the novel is considered modern literature, because you don't have anyone to root for.
I would only recommend this novel to sincere Francophiles and those Americans married to Brits. I'd give it a C.

The Queen of the Big Time, on the other hand, was a delight from beginning to end.
Trigiani wrote the flawless "Big Stone Gap" series that I enjoyed so much, and has written a second series that I've been seeking in used bookstores.

When this novel happened along I was thrilled to discover that it is a stand-alone book about a young woman, Nella Castelluca, who is part of an Italian immigrant community in coal mining country on the East Coast.
Nella is one of five daughters who live on their parent's farm during the great depression, and aspire to better things, like a high school education and living 'in town' where there's a chance they can be crowned 'Queen of the Big Time' and carry the Virgin Mary statue in a Catholic church procession through town.
Unfortunately, Nella gets sidelined from her dream of going to college and becoming a teacher when her father is injured in a mining accident, and all the daughters old enough must work in the blouse-making factory to help support the family. Nella's a born leader, however, and is made a foreman at the tender age of 16 and is soon managing the plant. She ends up owning and running a factory with her husband, making it a great success.
She meets a handsome young man, Renato Lanzara, and the two have a brief affair before Renato disappears without explanation. Nella is then wooed by the factory mechanic, Franco Zollerano and discovers on her wedding day that Renato has become a priest in her parish. Though she loves her husband and children, Nella always holds a place for Renato in her heart as her first love. Renato's speech at her funeral brought tears to my eyes.
Nella was an intricate, wonderful character, as were her huge extended family members, and, as usual with Trigiani's fabulous prose, I felt like I was right there for all the festivals, the wonderful foods, and the moonlit nights. This author never leaves her readers with anything but a very satisfying and complete ending, thank heaven, and I felt like I really knew these people and their triumphs and tragedies.
I'd recommend this book to anyone with even a smidgen of Italian blood in their veins, and even to those who love the Italian lifestyle and are interested in the immigrant experience. A solid A for this lovely novel.

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