Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Blind Contessa's New Machine

Call me morbid but I always used to dwell on subjects like this: if I had to be blind, would it be easier to have never seen at all (blind from birth), or to lose your sight slowly but at least nurture a memory of what the world used to look like? At least one would have that concept of color and spacial distances ingrained, something to tap into as one adjusted to the darkness.

This question is dealt with in a thoroughly original way in a sweet little debut novel that I picked up off the new book shelf a couple of weeks ago. Author Carey Wallace doesn't even look old enough to have written a book, let alone to come up with such a great opening sentence: "On the day Contessa Carolina Fantoni was married, only one other living person knew that she was going blind, and he was not her groom."

According to her website, Ms.Wallace is, among several other notable attributes, a photographer and perhaps that explains the nature of this imaginative book.
Set in some gorgeously rural part of Italy where various villas grace the countryside, boasting lakes and lemon groves, a young Carolina grows up with a tremendous amount of freedom due to a careless mother and a doting father.

Her love of the earth and intellectual curiosity set her apart from other young women, keeping her outdoors exploring plants, trees, and bugs from morning til night. Turri, the neighborhood eccentric, finds in Carolina a kinship that he doesn't share with his wife. An inventor, Turri bounces his ideas off Carolina and an intense friendship flourishes.

When she begins to realize that her eyes are dimming, her parents dismiss her "folly" and her fiance, the sexy but dimwitted Pietro, only laughs. Turri, on the other hand, gets to work and builds a writing machine that becomes the talk of the town, allowing the blind contessa to communicate with the outside world as her family would prefer to diminish her involvement with life.

Ms. Wallace has created a tough minded, passionate character in Carolina, a woman who uses her brains and wit to adjust to her circumscribed condition. She also cleverly points out the duality of human relationships in that it takes two male characters of varying strengths and weakness to satisfy one woman, and even then, not completely. What a delightfully subversive idea!

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