All the Stars in the Heavens — Book Review

I’m interested in how we survive by the labor of our own hands, and who we choose to love. Those are my two themes—they’re in every book I write.
Adriana Trigiani

Adriana Trigiani’s latest novel is an unabashedly romantic story of Hollywood’s golden age, peopled with the stars of yesteryear — Spencer Tracy, David Niven, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Hattie McDaniel — and Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Trigiani paints a romantic picture of Gable and Young as star-crossed lovers, kept apart by the strict moral codes and sexist double standard of the times.

Their problems were not of the heart, or their intentions, but of the practical world, which was defined by the wily and improbable laws enforced by the studios that employed them, and by the public, whose ticket dollars gave them the final say. Gable and Young were indentured to the stardom that made their lifestyle possible.

Fans of old movies and old-fashioned, multi-generational sagas will love All the Stars in the Heavens. It’s the kind of novels described in blurbs as “sweeping” — an overused word that is, nonetheless, apt when applied to this Hollywood epic. If the book were a movie it would be called a “biopic”. We first meet Loretta Young as a child actress, working to help her single mother pay the bills, and follow her as she becomes a leading lady in Hollywood, falling in love with the wrong men, and eventually a grandmother, watching herself and Clark Gable on a VHS tape of The Call of the Wild.

Warning to readers: don’t Google “Loretta Young”, “Clark Gable” — or anything else in the book that piques your curiosity. I made the mistake of doing that and I not only ruined the story for myself, but came across some recent information (so recent that Trigiani wouldn’t have known about it while writing the book) that cast doubt on one of the central plot elements. Granted, All the Stars in the Heavens is fiction, but it’s clear Trigiani tried to keep her story within the basic outline of Young’s life.

The most interesting character in the book is one Trigiani invented — Alda Ducci, Young’s secretary and dear friend. An Italian immigrant, Alda came to the Young household after being asked to leave the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, where she had been training to become a nun. The Mother Superior at the convent says, “‘I’m told this a fine Catholic family, very devout. You would be a secretary to one of the daughters. She works in pictures. Her name is Loretta Young.'” I was reminded of The Sound of Music, when Maria leaves the Abbey and falls in love with Captain von Trapp. (Remember the Baroness: “And somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.”)

Not only does Alda form a deep and abiding friendship with her employer, she falls in love with Luca Chetta, a scene painter on the set of The Call of the Wild. Both the friendship with Loretta and the relationship with Luca happen improbably fast. Almost immediately after meeting Alda, Luca says, “‘I’m already crazy about you . . . You got a big, sad heart. And big, beautiful eyes. I want to understand why you’re sad. And I want to look into those eyes of yours forever.'”  Alda responds: “‘You sound like a movie script.'”

The dialogue in All the Stars in the Heavens does sound like a movie script — a movie script from another era. It’s sometimes corny, but often the repartee is witty and flirtatious. Trigiani knows how to set a scene too, from the cold and isolated area of northern Washington where The Call of the Wild was filmed to the ancient and crowded neighborhood in Padua, Italy where Alda’s family lives.

Would I recommend All the Stars in the Heaven? For me, it was a welcome break from serious nonfiction, as well as a nostalgic trip to a bygone era. It’s fun reading, and you’ll learn a little something about old Hollywood. Like many of the movies the book references, All the Stars in the Heavens is clever, entertaining, and doesn’t probe too deeply. Trigiani is a terrific storyteller, and she has great material to work with in this book — which is her first biographical novel.

It’s not surprising that Trigiani chose to write about the movie business. A theater major in college, she spent 15 years as a playwright, comedy troupe actress, TV writer/producer (writing several episodes for the Cosby Show), and documentary filmmaker before turning to fiction writing. Her first novel, Big Stone Gap, the first in a series set in her Virginia hometown, started out as a screenplay. The movie version (written and directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd) was just released last month. The reviews have been middling; the Washington Post’s was typical, concluding that “In a lot of ways this is a Chicken Soup for the Soul sort of movie. But sometimes, especially when the air’s starting to turn brisk, that’s exactly what you need.”

And every once in a while, what you need is a Hollywood novel that gives you a glimpse of a glamorous world that no longer exists. I also recommend A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott (the filming of Gone With the Wind) and, if you’d prefer something more literary, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (the making of Cleopatra).

Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story . . . your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Click here for my review of Adriana Trigiani’s 2014 release, The Supreme Macaroni Company.

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The Supreme Macaroni Company — Book Review

9780062136596Every once in a while, I’m in the mood for a fun escape novel. When that mood strikes, I want to read something clever, entertaining, and well-written, with a touch of humor. Sometimes I need the reading version of comfort food — macaroni and cheese, anyone? Adriana Trigiani’s novels are perfect “comfort reading” — they’re warm and substantial.

Trigiani grew up in a large Italian family in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. A theater major in college, she spent 15 years as a playwright, comedy troupe actress, TV writer/producer (writing several episodes for the Cosby Show), and documentary filmmaker before turning to fiction writing.  Her first novel, Big Stone Gap, the first in a series set in her hometown, started out as a screenplay. The movie version (written and directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd) has just been filmed and is due for release this year.)

The Supreme Macaroni Company — which has almost nothing to do with a macaroni company — is the third in a series about shoe designer Valentine Roncalli and her family. (Trigiani has also written stand-alone novels and a memoir.) I’ve read almost all of Trigiani’s books, and every one is a delight. Don’t worry about reading them in order; you’ll enjoy your introduction to Trigiani’s wonderful characters wherever you start, and Trigiani skillfully weaves the background information into each story.

At the heart of The Supreme Macaroni Company is a love story. The book opens on Christmas Eve on the roof of the Angelini Shoe Company, where Valentine becomes engaged to Gianluca Vechiarelli (her grandmother’s stepson). Valentine loves Gianluca, but she also loves her family’s shoe company. Her workaholic tendencies will later put a strain on her new marriage, but for now she is full of optimism about their future:

A shoemaker would marry a tanner.
This could work.
Shoemakers and tanners form a symbiotic relationship out of necessity. One provides the leather while the other whips it into a glorious creation. At Vechiarelli & Son in Arezzo, Gianluca creates some of the most sumptuous leather, calfskin, and suede in Italy . . . For over a century, there has been and remains a shorthand between our families’ shops. The Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has proudly used Vechiarelli & Son’s goods for generations.

Valentine and Gianluca marry on Valentine’s Day, in the wedding her mother has always dreamed of — starting with “proper invitations”:

Years from now, you’ll want a permanent record of your wedding. An invitation is the bride’s Dead Sea scroll at the bottom of her hope chest . . . I’ll have the invitations printed up. You don’t even have to look at them. When Chrissy Pipino got married, she had a fold-out card with a tissue, and if you remember, it was gold-leafed. She even had a pop-up angel. You yanked a satin ribbon and the little cherub went over and down like a windshield wiper. We don’t have time for a pop-up, but we will have our version of Caravaggio angels.

Valentine’s mother, like  almost every character in this novel, is funny and lovable. Curmudgeonly Aunt Feen — who is truly heinous — is a comic foil, highlighting the essential goodness of the other family members. (Aunt Feen has a bit of a drinking problem: “She was having another Bailey’s on the rocks, and she was about to hit them hard like an old dinghy.”)  It’s a pleasure, every now and then, to read about people who are honest and well-meaning. They have flaws and make mistakes,to be sure, but they are decent people — people with big hearts, quick wits, and humor. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud while reading this book. (I also cried, just a little, but I won’t tell you any more about that.)

Consider the reaction of Valentine’s family when they learn that the appointed priest will not be able to officiate at the wedding:

When my mother returned, she had a look of panic on her face, which she tried to mask with a smile so broad it reminded me of the sample choppers dentists use to demonstrate proper flossing. “Val, we thought we had Father Drake.”
“Who do we have?”
“Father Nikako.”
“What happened to Father Drake?” Tess asked.
“He’s giving last rites at Queens County Hospital,” Mom explained.
“There’s a full-time job for you,” Aunt Feen piped up. “You better be bleeding like an animal when you go over there, otherwise you got a nine-hour wait. I saw a man holding his liver over there when I went for my flu shot . . . But Nikako? Jesus. I can’t understand a word he says.”
“He’s from Nigeria,” Mom snapped.

It’s easy to see that Trigiani has a background in TV sitcom writing! But she also writes lovely prose, equally at home describing the beauty of the Hudson River at night, the otherworldly appeal of New Orleans, and the struggle within Valentine between love and work.

Our bookstore has been fortunate enough to host Adriana Trigiani for several events. Before one of her appearances, Trigiani’s publicist warned us that “one thing about Adriana is that she will keep talking until someone stops her so if there is some kind of time limit just let her know beforehand and then politely give her a signal when it’s time to wrap up.” Well, I don’t think anyone wanted her stop talking. However, it’s probably time for me to stop writing. If you, like me, need a break from war, murder, psychopaths, and devastating family tragedies, I recommend The Supreme Macaroni Company. You’ll learn something about the shoemaking business to boot. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

For further reading:

Interview with Adriana Trigiani

Feature article about Adriana Trigiani’s Greenwich Village home

I read this book as part of a blog tour. To visit more stops on the blog tour, click here:

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