LocalLit book review: “under an Italian Moon” is part historical fiction, part romance

Author Joliet Anton said: ‘This book is a tribute to women, midwives, mothers and daughters and love’

If you like romance and/or historical fiction, I recommend “Under the Light of an Italian Moon” by former Joliet resident Jennifer Anton.

Anton based this novel, “on the lives of her Italian grandmother and great grandmothers during the rise of fascism and World War II,” according to her biography.

First, I’ll share the book’s summary and then I’ll give my thoughts. As a bonus, I’ll include a Q&A that Anton prepared and emailed to me.

Here is its Amazon description: “Nina Argenta doesn’t want the traditional life of a rural Italian woman. The daughter of a strong-willed midwife, she is determined to define her own destiny. But when her brother emigrates to America, she promises her mother to never leave.

“When childhood friend Pietro Pante briefly returns to their mountain town, passion between them ignites while Mussolini forces political tensions to rise. Just as their romance deepens, Pietro must leave again for work in the coal mines of America. Nina is torn between joining him and her commitment to Italy and her mother.

“As Mussolini’s fascists throw the country into chaos and Hitler’s Nazis terrorize their town, each day becomes a struggle to survive greater atrocities. A future with Pietro seems impossible when they lose contact and Nina’s dreams of a life together are threatened by Nazi occupation and an enemy she must face alone.”

I had a few thoughts as I read “Under the Light of an Italian Moon.” It reminded me of an out-of-print book for children that I’d read as a child: “Nanka of Old Bohemia.” Anton’s descriptions of rural Italy before the war, as seen through a child (her main character, Nina) conjured up for me similar emotions of childhood contentment and serenity as when I’d read “Nanka,” even though the adult reader can discern the underlying turbulence.

“Under an Italian Moon” also portrayed that same sense of enchantment the villagers felt toward America, a place of bountiful, unimaginable opportunities. Nanka’s father dreams of America and eventually the family does move, as do members of Nina’s family. Anton’s makes the historical, culture and daily life of the time come alive, not as facts in a history book but in the way people may have experienced them.

But as Nina, becomes a woman, Anton peels back the nostalgia and shows the reality, which is often quite harsh. This reminded me of another book I’d read years ago called “Mrs. Mike,” which is also part romance, part historical fiction.

In that book, a young Boston girl, Kathy, marries a Canadian Mountie almost on a whim and moves to Canada. Kathy finds magic in her new life as well as tragedy that is horrifyingly gruesome and simply part of the way life works there.

Like “Mrs. Mike,” “Under the Light of the Italian Moon,” is also a love story, especially the love between a husband and a wife who are separated by an ocean and living separate lives. For Nina’s husband has gone to the U.S. (Joliet) and works hard to prepare a place for his family, a feat that takes him decades to accomplish. During this time, he returns home just a handful of times.

Another local author, Irma Kump (deceased), also tackled the topics of spousal separation, immigration and Italian immigrants in “Aprons of Stone.”

What makes Anton’s book an especially good read for modern audiences is its modern prose. “Under an Italian Moon” is not written in outdated language (she does sprinkle some Italian phrases here and there to reinforce the mood) but in a conversational and relatable style.

Ultimately, “Under an Italian Moon” is a great deal like “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” For the thread running through Anton’s novel and binding the story together is that of women and their relationships with other women in good times and in challenging times, which gives the book an “eternal” feel, even though Anton set her story in specific places and times.

Buy “Under the Light on an Italian Moon” on Amazon.

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Q&A with Author Jennifer Anton, Under the Light of the Italian Moon

What inspired you to write Under the Light of the Italian Moon?

When I was born an article was published in the newspaper on Mother’s Day highlighting my mother’s delivery experience versus women in Italy born under her great-grandmother who was a midwife. I didn’t think much about that until I started learning about WW2 in high school and I asked my grandmother about her life in Italy. It was then that I learned about the town she lived in and some of the atrocities that happened there during the Nazi occupation. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I decided to get answers from my grandmother, but when I gave birth, I ended up in heart failure with a rare condition and two weeks later my grandmother died before the questions could get answered. At the funeral, I sat, with my baby daughter and my normally shy mother stood up to address the crowd about her mother. That moment made me realize the powerful connection between mothers and daughters and began my obsession with learning the stories of my ancestors in Italy.

What research was the most insightful as you gathered information for the novel?

My grandmother’s sister, who was in Italy with her during the war was the most important resource. I also travelled to Italy multiple times and eventually moved to Milan. I met with older Italians in Fonzaso, Italy to hear the stories firsthand. You start to hear the same thing over and over no matter what continent you are on. I spent a lot of time in the church archives in Fonzaso looking at birth records and old church bulletins. My daughter and I met with the lead for maternity at the University of Padua and we toured the back rooms to see the old anatomical models that the midwife trainees learned on. It was incredible.

Outside of firsthand interviews, I also read voraciously fiction and nonfiction about the era. One of the most important resources was Victoria’ de Grazia’s How Fascism Ruled Women. I found that throughout all of the novels I had read, no one talked about how Mussolini’s policies impacted women like my great grandmother. When I started to research the book in 2006, the term fascism was filled with cobwebs and no one used it in everyday vernacular. It was fascinating and unfortunate to see the term come forward again recently.

How has your heritage as an Italian American been impacted by this novel?

There are so many Italians in America and I am half Italian with my mother being 100%. Our ancestors came to America as immigrants, were stereotyped and looked down upon, took lowly jobs that no one else wanted but that they cherished because it allowed them to give their families better lives. The heart of the American Dream. I think getting closer to that history has been important in empathizing with immigrants today.

At its heart, this novel is about women. And Italian women are fierce. With mass emigration and war, women in Italy were alone much of the time and they had to work hard, raise families, fear God and survive. It was wonderful to include rituals, words (and curses) from my childhood, and food (polenta!) that has been handed down generation to generation across continents and remains today.

What do you hope readers take away from “Under the Light of the Italian Moon? "

This book is a tribute to women, midwives, mothers and daughters and love. I want them to take away that they must be resilient in the face of darkness and always help others, especially other women. I hope they remember that women need to be remembered in history, cherished, celebrated and revered.

What books and writers inspired you?

It took me a while to learn to read properly and then when I did, I was a voracious reader. I loved Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew. I read thirty six Nancy Drew books over the summer of third grade. Gone with the Wind was the book that really did it for me, though. I always loved strong female protagonists and writers.

What authors do you read now?

I read a lot in historical fiction both current authors and a lot of classics. I love Bassani, Fitzgerald, Wilde, Hemingway and Colette. I go back to classics a lot. The heyday of writing in Hemingway’s time makes me giddy. I’m a fan of Paula McClain and how she brings Hemingway’s wives to life. I admire writers today like Sally Rooney who did a fantastic job with Normal People and I really have so much admiration for what Elena Ferrante is doing. The nuanced way she depicts the struggles of women is breath taking. I find myself circling and taking photos of some of her sentences because they ring so true and pure.

Where and when do you write?

I write in the mornings at 6am before the normal business day. I have always had an intense business career that often has me travelling and then the writing always had to go on hold, hence why Under the Light of the Italian Moon took me fourteen years to write. I’m learning new techniques like sprinting that are really helping me towards book two. I love that NaNoWriMo is out there to get authors focused.

Where is your favorite place to read?

In front of the fireplace at our apartment in Lake Como.

You’re American, but you moved to Italy and then to London. Where is home?

Home is where the people you love are and where your heart is, so I consider Chicago, London and Italy home. But we reside between London and Lake Como and that is a wonderful way to live.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Don’t give up. If you are passionate about what you are writing, you will find other people who are passionate about it too. Hire the best team you can along the way. Use “dead” time to listen to podcasts and YouTube videos about any writing issue you have. Every writer is or has gone through exactly what you are going through! Help is out there! Keep going!

A lot of readers are asking for what happens next. Is there a second book to come?

I’m working on book two, but it isn’t a sequel to Under the Light of the Italian Moon. It picks up another character at the end of the war in Fonzaso and highlights another remarkable woman that I do not want to be forgotten. I started working on it during NaNoWriMo but need to decide when I can finish it. It gets my pulse racing thinking about it so I know I will finish it someday.

Indie or traditional publishing?

I find the Indie space so supportive and creative and interesting but the credibility and resources that come with traditional are desirable. The publishing industry is changing at record speed, so I say both and whatever comes in between! As long as great quality writing gets to readers who want it, at a fair rate to both parties, that is what matters - it’s a happy win-win!

For more information, visit boldwomanwriting.com.