Monday, January 09, 2012

The Black Madonna by Louisa Ermelino

"And a bathroom with colored tiles on the wall," one of the women said to another in a low voice, "pink and green, laid in a pattern, like a checkerboard."

How do you know?" someone asked.

"What do you mean by that? You think I'm lying? Tony the plumber told my husband."

The women argued about who knew what and who told whom, but they all agreed that whatever the color of the bathroom tiles, Magdalena had fallen in good. "If things had gone different," one of them said, "it could have been Teresa living in that house."

But Mary Ziganetti shook her head. "Teresa never had the luck. Some people, they got a horseshoe up their ass, but not Teresa."

( ~ p. 36 of The Black Madonna)

The Black Madonna by Louisa Ermelino is yet another book I just recently happened across as I cleaned house. In fact, I considered just donating it. I took a look at the cover and thought, "It's probably one of those old chick lit books I used to love." But, just in case, I read the cover and then sat down to read a few pages. Nope, not chick lit. And, I couldn't put it down.

The Black Madonna sucked me in like a tornado. I don't know how else to put it but to tell you that the story is authentic in a way that makes you feel as if you've been dropped into another world, one so completely believable that looking away from the book for a moment is jarring.

Almost the entire book takes place on Spring Street in New York's Little Italy and in a fictional Italian village; and, the focus is the women. First, you meet Teresa in 1948 and experience her heartbreak as her son Nicky takes a 3-story fall while playing Tarzan with his friend, Jumbo. The doctors say he will never walk again; but, Teresa refuses to believe her son won't recover. She'll do anything within her power to encourage a miracle.

The second section is about Magdalena, stepmother of young Salvatore, and it takes place in 1936. Salvatore is Nicky's closest friend; the two of them are like brothers. Since you've already been introduced to Magdalena and Teresa, the jump backwards in time not only gives you a full perspective of one woman's life and how she came to live on Spring Street but also fills in some gaps in the stories of her neighbors. Teresa's personality and her story become even more well-rounded while Magdalena is magically acquiring a husband in Italy.

The final story is about Antoinette. It's 1968. Jumbo, Nicky and Salvatore are now grown men with very different lives. Jumbo still fits his name and everyone assumes he'll never find a woman but Antoinette is fine with that. Jumbo has always been the most precious part of her life -- even if he does keep getting in trouble for gambling and once had to run for his life. The kind of woman whose world is almost entirely lived in the kitchen, where she cooks to show her love to her family, Antoinette is big and loving but just a bit possessive. Will Jumbo stand up to his mother and the potential in-laws who wrinkle their nose at him? Or, will Antoinette and the mother of Jumbo's true love win the day?

Just reading those little blurbs doesn't tell you much about the book. The real joy of reading The Black Madonna is in the immersion into the world of the characters. You get to know the women, how they feel about each other, what they say behind closed doors and out in the street, how they treat their children and which sun (love, money, food) their worlds revolve around. But, you also get to know pretty much everyone else in the neighborhood. You're in the apartment with the boys when they decide to smoke and drink while Mom's away. You're down on the sidewalk listening to the men and watching them unfold their chairs and sip their drinks while they watch the women gossip and the children play.

At the heart of all this is the "Black Madonna." According to the author, the Black Madonna is "a powerful image representing the rich dark earth and its crops, the instincts of the flesh, sexuality, fertility, female power, the dark uncertain side of life, and a reminder that life is not always what's obvious." [p. 259 of The Black Madonna]

Each of the women featured in the book have their own little shrines to the Black Madonna. They pray for their own little miracles or create their own magic, but the Black Madonna is at the center of everything. I found that central theme a little strange, but in spite of the fact that I really felt like the book is focused on the women, there's no escaping the fact that the women rely on their belief in this strange alter-ego of Christ's mother and give her credit when good things happen.

My copy of The Black Madonna was copyrighted in 2001 and published by Kensington Books (in arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Inc.). I looked up the author and found that she's only published 3 books. Ah, disappointment. I was hoping she'd written a dozen, by now. But, I'll eagerly gobble down the other two, when I can find copies of them.

Highly, highly recommended. The Black Madonna is not just any old read; it's an experience. It was really quite sad leaving the world when I finished the book. That old-fashioned sense of everyone in a neighborhood being a part of each other's world is something I really loved as a child and still miss.

Just walked in:

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley - from Paperback Swap
The Photo Album by K. B. Dixon - from author for review (I don't accept many books directly from authors, these days, but this will be my third by Dixon, so . . . he's grandfathered in, I suppose)
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan - library sale purchase
Love Lies Bleeding by Jess McConkey - library sale purchase
Swim to Me by Betsy Carter - library sale purchase

That's pretty much all the news. My weekend was shot, thanks to a killer migraine and the woozy after-effects of medicating it into submission. But, today was great. Bounce, bounce. Happy Monday!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. This does sound like a rather interesting book, and like nothing I have ever experienced before. I like the fact that it revolves around three women and their families, and I can imagine that I would really enjoy this one. I am off to see if the library has this on their audio list. I would love to give it a listen! Great review today, my friend!

  2. Oh, yay, Mariana. I really enjoyed that book! Also, I really want to read Mudbound but my library doesn't have it. :(

  3. Zibilee,

    That's one of the things that's really enjoyable about The Black Madonna: it revolves around the women. But, the sensation of being back in that world where people left their doors open, clustered together while their children played, etc. -- the genuine feel of community that we've lost -- I just love that. Even if I can only visit it in fiction, I'm happy.


    I've only read one Susanna Kearsley book, but I loved it so much I've ordered two more. I can't wait to read Mariana.

    I've heard Mudbound is really great but actually hesitated to check it out (since it's a Southern title, my library does have it -- but the copy I found only cost a quarter). Several people have been nudging me to read it, though, so I figured I might as well grab a copy when I found it cheap. I'll let you know what I think. And, if I ever make it to Canada, maybe I can drag my copy along. :)

  4. This sounds excellent. I love that all the action takes place in that one little neighborhood. I want to know more about the black madonna now.


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