Hi, friends! I started out the year on an amazing note by reading The White Moth by Camilla Calhoun. It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for memoirs, especially those written by women. And if you have been following me for a while, you’ll know that I love family stories. I got exactly those two things when I read this brilliant book!
Title: The White Moth: The Story of Three Generations at a Tuscan Villa
Author: Camilla Calhoun
Genre: nonfiction, memoir
Published on: November 28th, 2018 by Matador (Troubador UK)
Page count: 310 pages
s y n o p s i s
Camilla Calhoun moved to Tuscany, Italy, to write and stayed at a friend’s villa in the 1970s. There, she met lovely people, including her mother-in-law-to-be, Alda. The White Moth is a celebration of Alda’s memory, as well as an homage to her son and Calhoun’s late husband, Aldo. It is a collection of memories of Calhoun’s experience living in a Tuscan villa in the 1970s and of Alda’s life as a woman, mother, and wife in a turbulent 20th-century Italy. The result is a tale that blends past and present, food, history, culture, writing, and motherhood beautifully.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced reader’s copy from the lovely team over at Matador in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
— This is a spoiler free review, don’t worry! —
This year I made it my goal to have as much control as possible over my ARCs. So I started the year by picking this book up, already suspecting that I would love it. And I was not mistaken! After reading around ten pages or so, I was glued to the book.
There are so many things to love in this book — and it’s a great introduction to memoirs for readers who don’t have much experience reading this genre! So let me point out all the things I adored in The White Moth…
🇮🇹 Alda, Alda, Alda…
Alda, Camilla’s mother-in-law, is the focus of this memoir. And as you read on and time goes by, you realize exactly why. As readers, we don’t want to simply be told that a character is strong. We want writers to make us see it. And that’s exactly what Calhoun does in this memoir. I loved seeing Alda grow from a scared young woman who was moving out of her family’s house into the head of a household during World War Two.
Despite facing so many challenges, this revered woman was able to stay strong for the sake of her family. It will never cease to amaze me how much Alda fought back against things that were out of her control. She lost a baby, had her house invaded by two WWII armies, worried over her husband’s disappearance, and still managed to cook grand meals for her family, help during harvest season, and raise three children lovingly. Alda quickly became one of my favorite people described in a book.
🇮🇹 A brilliantly described setting
It’s impossible for anyone to review this book without mentioning the fantastic setting. It’s in the title and it was what actually drew me to the book initially. Tuscany and this villa, in particular, are so well described by the author.
Alda’s family on her husband’s side purchased this quiet villa atop a hill outside Florence, Tuscany, in the 1920s. It was to be their family’s summer retreat. Away from the pollution and confusion of the city, the Rafanelli family could spend their time away from work here.
As a reader who loves interior design, I loved reading about how the place was decorated: in a traditional, Cinquecento style. Calhoun gives us, through Alda’s memories, a view of the villa in its full glory in the 1920s and 1930s. There are descriptions of the kitchen, living room, rooms, corridors, stairs, outside areas, and of the countryside that surrounds the villa.
Then, as time goes by, a lot of things change in this once-idyllic home. World War Two, general political unrest, and the test of time take a toll on the villa. The author captures this change perfectly. As time goes by, we see not only the characters get older and the political systems change (from monarchy to fascism to democracy), but also we see the villa fall apart. There’s something so beautiful, in my opinion, about seeing physical spaces that have been well-lived-in being affected by time. With so many memories (both happy and painful) attached to this Tuscan villa, it was heartbreaking to see it go to ruins.
🇮🇹 A tight-knit family
The Rafanelli family has to be one of the most interesting groups of people I’ve read about in a really long time. We’re introduced to a large cast of characters all connected, in one way or another, to Alda and Camilla. From the farmer who tills the Rafanelli land to the captivating Elvira (Alda’s mother-in-law), there’s not a single boring person in this book.
My favorite thing, when reading about families, is seeing how they work when they’re together. What kind of dynamic is there? Camilla Calhoun did such a great job capturing the essence of this Italian family. She describes family gatherings around specific folk holidays (like the vendemmia) and everyday interactions as well (such as the normal dinners everyone eats together). It was so refreshing to see a family being portrayed so honestly. Seeing how much everyone loves each other will warm up your heart.
🇮🇹 An honest portrayal of life
When writing about families and about the dead, it can be very tempting to sugar coat reality. It makes sense: you don’t want your loved ones to be remembered for the bad or questionable things they did in life. So, you hide the truths and only show them as saints. That’s not the feeling we get from Calhoun’s memoir.
The most striking example of how the writer doesn’t try to cover up parts of people’s lives is her description of Floro, Alda’s husband. Like many young men in Italy in the post-WWI years, Floro aligned himself with Mussolini’s Fascist Party. Both he and his father held very conservative views of what a family and gender roles were for. Floro is even an active member of the party and we see, scattered through their house in Florence and the villa, Fascist memorabilia (such as his shirts).
I loved how Camilla didn’t shy away from associating her family with fascism in Italy. After all, a historical account of Italy in the 1930s and 1940s would be impossible without any mentions to Mussolini’s regime. Floro, in a way, represents the political changes that Italy goes through in the first half of the 20th century, which is a pleasure to read about.
This adds not only historical truth to the book, but it also creates a very interesting character. As a reader, you will feel very conflicted between rooting for Floro and also condemning his actions. On one hand, he seems to be a loving husband and a great father. On the other hand, he stands for a very dark period in Italian history, when a witch hunt was launched to stop communism and socialism from spreading and torture and persecution were run-of-the-mill. The conflict only intensifies when we learn of Floro’s fate right after the end of the war in Italy.
What will you do in the end — root that this man, who was associated with the Fascist party and has, indirectly, blood on his hands; or will you root that he gets arrested and tried? People are full of contradictions, and the fact that Camilla Calhoun decided to include Floro’s story makes this memoir even better.
🇮🇹 The role food plays
Food plays, in most cultures, a very important role. Each culture cooks their meals in a special and traditional way. Mealtime is also when families gather around and share memories. Since this is a family memoir, food couldn’t be absent from these pages. In fact, it very much has a central role in the book.
Alda and her mother-in-law, Elvira, were the ones in charge of feeding their family. As a reader, you can feel how much they cared about providing for their loved ones and how much they loved to cook traditional meals. As a result, recipes are passed down from generation to generation. The writer even includes a handful of Rafanelli recipes at the end of her book, which was a great idea and made me feel a part of the family!
🇮🇹 Descriptions of the war
Have you ever read a book about WWII from the point of view of Italians? I don’t think I had until I read this memoir. Since this focuses on Alda and she lived through the war, it’s inevitable that it would end up being described in the book. But the glimpses we do have of the war are very impartial: Alda never picks sides during the conflict, contrary to what her husband does.
Instead of learning about combats, tactics, or even politics, we are given the perspective of how the war impacted the Rafanelli’s day-to-day life. The few descriptions that exist of the Italian army’s movements are very brief and only intend to situate the reader. Rather, the best descriptions of the war are intimately connected to Alda herself. How will she make do with the little food she has at home? How will she feed her entire family? How will she make the children’s lives as normal as she can? These are the struggles Alda is faced with, and we see her battling to make life at the villa as ordinary as possible.
This is a point of view I loved. What I look for in historical fiction is exactly this: how a character is affected by her circumstances. While this is not fiction, it is exactly what we get. All the passages about the war are heartfelt, meaningful, and rather painful. In my opinion, it strengthens the memoir and gives it a lot of depth.
🌻 v e r d i c t 🌻
Read it now!!!
If you are interested in memoirs but have never given the genre a shot, this is the book for you. I love how it mixed narration with nonfiction. A lot of chapters even read like a novel! It’s a great starting point for memoirs.
I loved The White Moth so much. Do you think you will pick it up? I hope I’ve done this incredible book justice!