The Good Left Undone: A Novel
“The Good Left Undone is a poignant expose on the value of the unsung heroes in a multigenerational, working-class family, and through the power of story, author Adriana Trigiani reminds us that our own family stories are important.”
Adriana Trigiani’s three-part The Good Left Undone reads like a multigenerational saga extolling the power of family. Part one begins with the sobering epigraph, “Let whoever longs to attain eternal life in heaven heed these warnings: When considering the past, contemplate these things: The evil done; The good left undone; The time wasted.” From the poignant beginning, the template is cast and incrementally filled in two timeframes fully played out by the Cabrelli family, in a pitch so passionate the reader remains personally involved throughout the story.
The Cabrellis are working class people, proud, salt-of-the-earth Italians whose everyday lives are devoutly guided by their Catholic faith. They live among the Birtolinis, Savattinis, Spiranzas, and Mattiuzzis. They drink espresso from moka pots and dine on bombolini during coastal Viareggio’s annual Carnevale. They are jewelers, and sailors, parents, and nurses, with ties to Italy, France, and Scotland. At the center of the story is the Cabrellis’ ancestral history. The family exists in modern times because some survived the second world war.
It is 81-year-old Matelda Cabrelli Roffo’s birthday as she sits in her third generation, seaside home in the village of Viareggio, Italy. Closing her eyes, she reminisces on those now gone, and understands, “a family was only as good as their stories.”
At 25, and engaged to be married, Anina Tizzi is a dazzler. Arriving at Matelda’s house to keep their scheduled appointment, she reminds her grandmother of their family tradition and says, “Your grandmother gave you a piece of jewelry to wear on your wedding day, your mother gave jewelry to my mother, and now it’s your turn to give it to me.”
When Anina asks Matelda to disclose a bit about her own mother, Matelda looks out to the Ligurian Sea and, knowing her days are numbered as the family lore archivist, concedes, “Anina would soon find out where the sea had taken Domenica Cabrelli before it swept her away, along with her true love and their secret.”
Freeing significant family heirlooms from their hiding place to present to Anina, each a building block contributing to the overall family story, Matelda is visited by the shadow of history. It is 1920, and her mother, Domenica Cabrelli, is 11 years old, on a treasure hunt with her best friend, Silvio, along the dunes of Viareggio’s white sand beach. When bad luck finds the inseparable friends, Silvio needs stitches, and Domenica, accompanying Silvio to Dottore Pretucci’s office, decides then and there to train as a nurse. It’s a fateful decision that spawns a trajectory of events ultimately effecting Domenica’s life and carrying forth to future generations.
Upon learning something about her great grandmother’s surprising story, Anina wants to hear more, and remarks of Domenica, “There might be something else in her story that would inform my life now. One person in the family impacts the whole group.”
The sea is a pervasive image in The Good Left Undone, as is the satisfaction an artisan receives from doing valuable work with committed hands. In the multi-layered, wider sphere, Trigiani’s focus is character driven and personal, with underlying themes of perseverance in the face of fate and chance, and an eye to preserving family lineage.
The heart and soul story of Domenica Cabrelli is thoroughly realized. It concerns the life and loves of a woman devoted to her family and heritage as set against the painstakingly researched backdrop of the Second World War, peppered with fascinating, little-known facts about the war’s impact on the Italian people.
In her compelling story, Trigiani’s detail is beautifully nuanced. Her sense of place is illuminating and vibrantly alive with the small details that make an Italian life meaningful. Matters of day-to-day survival are equally balanced with affairs of the heart in such a way that serves as a grandmother’s cautionary tale to her granddaughter. When Anina’s doubts about marriage arise, Trigiani’s dialogue is deadpan, quick-witted, and pithy as Matelda imparts her brass tack advice, “Listen to me. Love yourself. That’s the greatest adventure. When you love yourself, you want to find your purpose, something only you can do in the way only you can do it. Make things. Create. And if a man comes along—and believe me he will—the relationship is already off to a good start because both of you love the same person. You.”
The Good Left Undone is a poignant expose on the value of the unsung heroes in a multigenerational, working-class family, and through the power of story, author Adriana Trigiani reminds us that our own family stories are important. As Matelda reveals family secrets, the dawning of awareness comes to Anina. She becomes more and more enraptured and wants to hear everything about her family from her grandmother. “Mostly, Anina wanted to reach into the years ahead and bring her children into the present so her grandmother would know them. She wanted them to hear the family stories from the source. After all, her grandmother didn’t just tell the family stories; she was the story.”
Adriana Trigiani’s The Good Left Undone will delight book clubs, and those who enjoy historical fiction and women’s fiction. It’s a deeply felt, epic tale that transports the reader straight to the heart of Italy.