Garnet Ferrari refuses to believe that she can heal anyone. It’s just a coincidence that all of the heartbreaks of psoriasis, pustulating epidermis, and marred acne complexions she encounters are miraculously healed. “Saint Garnet,” she of the Sweetwater, West Virginia backcountry, is not responsible. Just ask her.
Marie Manilla’s Italo-Appalachian tale, The Patron Saint of Ugly, revolves around the Catholic Church’s canonization investigation of second-generation American Garnet Ferrari and Garnet’s frantic attempts to derail the Church’s efforts. Garnet’s high-born Virginia mother meets and marries a working class Italian, much to the chagrin of both families. Garnet, her parents and her golden brother Nicky settle in Sweetwater, West Virginia, watched over by her paternal grandmother, the formidably capable, malocchio-fighting, superhero Nonna Diamante Ferrari whose voice is a frequent interrupter of Garnet’s narrative.
Though pilgrims world-wide claim to have been healed by Garnet, she herself is disfigured as described by the Vatican’s envoy, Archbishop Gormley:
The background tone of her flesh is pale, but the birthmarks decorating her skin are varying shades of purple: deep mulberry, magenta, the faintest mauve. It looks as if someone took a map of the world, cut out continents and islands, provinces and cantons, and glued them willy-nilly on Garnet’s body. I distinctly identified Alaska on her right cheek, the Aleutians trailing over her nose; Mongolia on one shoulder; Zaire on the other; Crete on her knee; Chile on her ankle; and many others. There is a kind of beauty in her birthmarks; God’s holy design is imprinted on her skin.
I had the pleasure of meeting and spending the better part of a week “porch-sittin and wine-sippin” with West Virginia-born, Italian-American, author Marie Manilla at the Hindman Settlement School Writers’ Workshop last August. I had an equal pleasure in reading Marie’s glorious novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, shortly thereafter. It’s a fairy tale, a morality tale, a novel of Southern Gothic mysticism and Italian malocchio (evil-eye) enchantment and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It reminded me a good deal of Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom, another fantastic, tall-tale with a fascinating heroine.
Nonna remembers when the neighbors got their first look at me. It was a fall afternoon when she and Mom tried out the new strollers. Mom went first, pushing Nicky, with Nonna and me several paces behind. The hill women hand not seen their flaxen-haired boy in months, and they had never seen his cloistered little sister. They raced forward with offerings, their own children toddling beside them. “Where is our beautiful boy?” Gonna sputtering ptt-ptt-ptt. Next they veered toward me; Mom and Nonna hoped decorous manners would prevail.
They did not. When the women inspected me, their hands flew to their mouths. What’s wrong with her? Is she contagious?”
“Of course a-not!” Nonna said.
But the children bawled at the sight and ran home, chased by their mothers who slammed their doors, windows too, and then the drapes.
Kirkus Reviews compared it to Tristam Shandy. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/marie-manilla/patron-saint-of-ugly/ As Nonna would said, “not a-bad. Not a-bad at all.”
I emailed Marie and told her I had planned to write about The Patron Saint of Ugly and she remarkably sent me her family recipe and some background which is integral to her work . . . and fascinating as well. I am MAKING THIS this weekend!
Marie Manilla’s Grandma Conchetta
I dedicated the novel to my grandmother, Concetta Ferrari Lapelle Manilla. Unfortunately, she died before I was born, but the family lore is that she escaped an arranged marriage back in Sicily by selling some of the family jewels and hopping a ship to America. This made her a hero to me. Her second husband was my Calabrian grandfather, a stone mason who lived in Huntington, West Virginia, where my father was born. It’s also my hometown. Apparently Grandma was a fabulous cook who, according to Grandpa Manilla, “Could even make shit taste delicious.” My mother lived with them for about a year after she and my father married. Mom remembers Concetta making pasta by hand and draping it over the dining room chairs to dry. As soon as the men left for work and the breakfast dishes were cleared, Concetta would say in broken English: “Now it’s-a time to start cooking the supper,” which always included a side serving of pasta. Concetta never wrote any of her recipes down, so when she died, her recipes went with her—except for her spaghetti sauce, which my father used to make once a year. It was a grand and sacred production. He never wrote the recipe down either, but Mom watched him make it enough that she recounted it for me as best she could. It’s very simple, and I can still remember the smell and distinctive taste. No one has made it in its pure form since my father died in 1993, though some of us have tried, often adding additional spices and meats, though the flavor is never quite the same.
Concetta’s (and Dad’s) Spaghetti Sauce
4 pounds of beef short ribs (as opposed to pork ribs, which are more commonly used)
6 cans of Contadina Tomato Paste
Salt and pepper
Brown the beef short ribs in two big spaghetti pots Add salt and pepper Add Contadina Tomato Paste Fill pots to the brim with water Simmer for two days—two days!—until the water reduces, the sauce thickens, and the meat is falling from the bones. Serve over pasta with garlic bread, a salad, and plenty of red wine.
I would serve this spaghetti sauce with good bread, several bottles of Italian red wine (http://www.winemag.com/August-2014/5-Summer-Italian-Reds/) and a lovely cheesecake for dessert.
Once again, Marie provided the soundtrack to her writing process which will make a fabulous soundtrack for your book club’s discussion of The Patron Saint of Ugly. Heck, it’s a fabulous soundtrack for day-to-day living as far as I’m concerned!
While I was writing the novel, the soundtrack playing in my head included Italian-American singers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. When I had my Patron Saint launch party I bought CDs of all of these singers. My Italian-American husband suggested I also include Italian singer, Domenico Modugno, whom his Italian grandparents adored.
Here’s a selection of particular favorites:
Frank Sinatra: “I’ve got the World on a String” (for Garnet—my globe-speckled narrator) and “Witchcraft” for Nonna’s belief in the Evil Eye and Le Strega—the witch who lives atop Garnet’s hill.
Dean Martin: “That’s Amore” and “Volare.”
Rosemary Clooney: “Come On-A My House” and “Mambo Italiano.”
Domenico Modgno: “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” and “O Sole Mio.”
Louis Prima: “Just a Gigolo,” “Oh Marie” (for me), and “Angelina” (for my mother-in-law).
Tony Bennett: “Stranger in Paradise” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Garnet — Emma Stone
Nonna Diamante — Christina Hendricks (Don’t get mad at me. She needs to be able to play Diamante as a young woman too!)
Dominick Ferrari — Steve Buscemi/Frankie Muniz
Angelo Ferrari — Armand Assante/Mark Ruffalo
La Strega — Jessica Lange
Read it. You’ll LOVE IT. Happy Reading and Eating!