Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Uncle from Rome

I found out about The Uncle from Rome, by Joseph Caldwell, in the anthology Italy in Mind, which included the first chapter.  I read it a few months ago, and was hooked.  I needed to read the rest of the story!  So I did.

Here's the premise: Michael Ruane is an opera singer from New York who has spent his career as a comprimario--that is, one who is part of the supporting cast but never is the star of the show.  He is visiting Naples in order to sing in a production of Tosca and to produce and sing in a one-night performance of Curlew River by Benjamin Britten as a tribute to one of his former singing teachers.  This is his one opportunity to sing the lead role.

Michael is asked, make that begged, by the diva starring in Tosca to assume the role of the "uncle from Rome" at the wedding of the son of her former music teacher.  Michael agrees to do so, being fluent in Italian, and is swept away by the role.  He assumes that the role is for the wedding only, but the family embraces him, respects him, and pulls him into their crazy, soap-opera, pizza-fueled world.  And he lets them because he discovers how much he loves being a respected uncle.  

The family that he pretends to be now part of is classically dysfunctional and Michael relishes trying to solve their horrific problems--one son is threatening to kill the other son, the newlyweds are reeling from their own shotgun wedding, and the matriarch is blind to reality.

In addition to all of this, Michael's former lover recently died of AIDS and he is feeling empty and angry with himself for being unable to grieve as he wants and expects himself to do.  In the cast of Curlew River, Michael finds a young man, Piero, with a gorgeous voice who challenges him to let himself mourn, heal, and try on new, scary roles.  There is one incredible scene where Michael and Piero climb a hill and look out over Naples below them--Piero echoes Satan from the King James version of the Bible and says to Michael "I will give you all this if you bow down and worship me."

What makes The Uncle from Rome so interesting and satisfying as a novel is the way that Caldwell explores the idea of how the roles a person assumes can frame or even dictate the parameters of that person's life--whether as a lover, a diva, a bit player, a rejected lover, a mourner, a matriarch, a son, or an uncle...from Rome.

Once again, I enjoyed reading about Italian culture and place.  I learned more about the food, the customs, and especially enjoyed the opera world depicted, a world in which the relative merits of divas are hotly, passionately debated.   I doubt I would have discovered this book if I hadn't been looking for books to read that are set in Italy, but I am so glad I did find it.

The final scene is one of the best endings to a book that I've read in a long time.  All I will say is that Michael somehow manages to pull all the roles he is playing both on and off the stage into one shining moment that made my jaw drop and then made me laugh with relief.


  1. This sounds like a really good book.

    Identity and roles that people play is a common these in literature. I think that this is so because it is a common theme in real life. Based upon your summery it seems like it is handled very creatively here.

  2. Seems like a good ending. I havent heard of this one. But I do like novels set in Italy. Sounds good

  3. I'm intrigued by the ending. This sounds like a very interesting book - great review!