April 2005

Beth Dugan


The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

Small towns are the same everywhere you go, as Simonetta Agnello Hornby shows us with her first novel The Almond Picker. Even in 1963 Roccacolomba, Italy, there is gossip, backbiting, cliquishness, and petty squabbles. The town’s folk keep each other in line with the tried and true methods of guilt and shame and everyone knows everyone else’s business, good or bad. Hornby relates the story of Mennulara (meaning "the almond picker" in Italian) née Maria Rosalia Inzerillo, the faithful servant of the Alfallipe family, one of the town’s most prominent. On the day of Mennulara’s death, the mystery of her life starts to unfold. And that is really what this story is, a mystery. Mennu was a dirt poor peasant who went into service for the Alfallipe’s at 13 to support her ailing mother and sister. She learned to read and educated herself in art, music, land management, finance, and whatever else interested her. She ends up running the Alfallipe house, lands and accounts, saving their waning fortunes and precarious social position.

Mennu is painted as a prickly, opinionated woman who was ruthless in business and knew how to accomplish what she wished. There is much resentment among the townspeople who believe she didn’t know her place as a servant or a woman. Hornby tells Mennu’s story throughout the week following her death by relating how it affects the various people in Roccacolomba. Her friendships with the town doctor and priest are laid bare and they think back about their relationships with the complicated women they knew. The enemies of the Alfallipes all have stories about Mennu that they relate through gossip. The Alfallipe’s behavior disintegrates throughout the week as they scheme and plot to get what they assume is Mennu’s fortune. In the space of two weeks they undo all of Mennu’s hard work in propping their family up in the eyes of the Roccacolomba community.

This is not a "page turner." There is little intrigue since the most interesting person in the story dies in the first chapter. There are no titillating plot twists, justice is not meted out to the wicked, and the ending is neither happy nor sad. This is a sleepy character study in reverse. It is archaeology. The reader is taken on the journey of how Mennu became who she was when she died. The town is exposed and explored and shown to be just a town where things happen, like any other town. The characters in the town list toward stock character qualities but it is their interaction in Mennu’s life that saves them from being stereotypes.

Hornby’s prose is quiet and unassuming and her dialogue believable. Instead of letting her audience figure out who Mennu really was, there is an inexplicable expository letter written that ties off loose ends and packages the mystery up neatly at the finale of the book. Would that Hornby had let her readers finish the puzzle themselves, but she seems to have lost her nerve at the end. Hornby does an exceptional job of setting the place of Roccacolomba. Totally immersion in the warm air, cobbled streets, lush gardens, and traditional food lubricates the telling and Roccacolomba springs to life. This book feels like a mini-vacation to sunny Italy.

The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374182345
336 Pages