Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Report: Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love by Justine van der Leun

I'm fast becoming a fan of the memoir.  The slice-of-life insights, descriptions, and inevitable personal revelations are sometimes more compelling than those found in fiction.  I became especially engrossed in Justine van der Leun's Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love.  Twentysomething Justine relays how she parlayed a lifelong love of words into a magazine career - only to discover that it wasn't what it seemed.  Soured out by the office politics and incessant corporate climbing of her coworkers, Justine remains quietly at the bottom of the ladder, screening the often incoherent and disturbing email submissions from end-of-their-rope readers looking for sympathy:

"The people who wrote me - or rather, who wrote the nameless, faceless entity behind the magazine's general email address - were, at least from their viewpoints, being smashed around in lives that had spun out of control.  They were not equipped to deal with everything thrown at them, the pointless cruelties and little inequities.  Well, me neither, I thought.  The office environment was for someone with a thicker skin, a more healthily diminished ego, and either a more respectful attitude toward fellow human beings or the ambition of a presidential candidate." (29)

In an attempt to avoid becoming similarly lost, Justine quits her job and finds a much lower-paying one writing a memoir (oh irony of ironies) for a businessman.  Then she goes to Italy.  She was there just six weeks before on vacation and returns not only to "find herself," but to continue the romance she started with gardener Emanuele by boldly and uncharacteristically approaching him in a bar.

You know how sometimes you're reading a book, and a character seems so much like yourself that you're surprised and a little put out when he or she does something that you would never do?  Well, that's how I felt when Justine realized that she had packed only one dress for Italy, a misstep that forced her to borrow one from a near-stranger to wear on her date with Emanuele (who proves to be less than dashing, by the way, causing said dress to become mud bespattered).  I couldn't help but think that if I took such a trip, then I'd probably bring every dress I owned.  It made me wonder if supposed kindred spirit Justine would think me shallow should we ever chance to meet.  Probably, as I'm not big on travel either.  Or dogs.  (But I liked this book!)

Mud or no mud, Justine moves in with Emanuele, and by extension, his big, boisterous family.  Far from the glossy urban centers of Milan and Venice, their Umbrian village presents Justine with all kinds of culture shock.  As an educated city girl raised by a single mother, Justine is unprepared for a close-knit family life in which everyone eats bruised produce and organ meat, and women are expected to dance attendance on men:

"Be a good wife.  Be a good, proud wife, who cooks and cleans and can darn a sock . . . who makes the house nice - but not too nice, not show-off nice, just nice enough, and so spotless that you can eat a pork dinner directly off the floor.  Don't want more.  Don't hope to leave one day or to find a wealthy husband, or to make a pile of cash on your own. . . . Like it like the men soldering iron like it.  Like it like the men chopping wood like it.  Like it like the factory workers like it.  It's your job, so like it" (103)

Justine's (or, Guistina's, according to her adopted family) social and culinary calamities are compounded by her and Emanuele's crumbling courtship.  A man's man if ever there was one, Emanuele abandons Justine for days on end to hang with the boys.  Things look bleak indeed until Justine finds Marcus.  Far from being some handsome stranger one village over, Marcus is a dog (and a female one at that, as Justine later discovers.)  Half-starved and filthy, the English pointer has been subsisting on moldy water in a barn on Emanuele's family farm for the past year.  Justine immediately claims the unfortunate creature as her own, taking her to the vet and eventually into her and Emanuele's apartment, much to the horror of Emanuele's family.  A local dog lover tells Justine that Italians don't think of dogs as pets, but as hunters and beasts of burden, an attitude dating back to World War II when Italian families didn't have enough food to feed their families let alone animals.  But to Justine, Marcus is even more than a pet - she's a lifeline.  As a fellow outsider, she represents Justine's gateway to freedom and the culmination of her journey.  Justine says as much herself when she finally decides to unpen Marcus and let her run free:

"The neighbors told me to chain Marcus or to cage her again, but I couldn't.  Marcus was too happy; she seemed healthier and in better spirits than when she had spent twenty-two hours a day cooped up, and I liked to find her snoozing in a sun spot by the rosebushes.  Better free and in danger than jailed and safe." (144)

Eventually, Justine heeds her own words.  She ends things with Emanuele by pleading homesickness (not that he cares, having already hooked up with their roughhewn horse trainer).  At first she tries to find Marcus a good Italian home, reasoning that the high-strung pup would never last a day in Brooklyn.  But in the end she packs her up in a cargo crate (but of course; what other end could be fitting?), crowning her as her copilot for even bigger adventures.

Justine doesn't tell us where life takes her after her return to the States.  But the author bio says that she has written for "various publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, the New York Observer, Marie Claire, and The Bark."  So I can only imagine that things picked up for her professionally.  Still, I couldn't help but wonder if one of those esteemed institutions was the one that drove her out of her cubicle and on her quest in the first place.

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