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from the October 2013 issue

Elisa Ruotolo’s “I Stole the Rain”

Reviewed by Emma Garman

With the deceptive kick of an apertivo that slides down like water but is 80 proof, the three stories in "I Stole The Rain" promptly engaged my attention.

Quietly, stealthily, and with the deceptive kick of an apertivo that slides down like water but is 80 proof, the three stories in I Stole The Rain promptly engaged my attention—then punched me in the gut and made me cry. Published by new Berlin e-press Frisch & Co and translated from the Italian by Lisa McCreadie, Elisa Ruotolo’s debut book takes as its setting the southern Italian region of Campania, and as its subject the inescapable ways that family and childhood experiences shape lives. Ruotolo teaches Classics, and her unsentimental storytelling bears the stamp of the tragedian: characters may labor in pursuit of happiness, or passively submit to their forlorn circumstances, but fate always holds the upper hand—to which, the author implies in her tender conclusion to each tale, a person can and should be comfortably reconciled.

In “I Am Super Legend,” a teenage boy becomes the star player on a rag-tag local soccer team coached by his father, despite his mother’s loftier ambitions for him. “She would have preferred seeing me ill or bedridden with my leg in a cast to knowing that I was wasting my time on that dusty pitch . . . a thousand lifetimes away from making use of her sacrifices.” After leaving in a blaze of glory to join a professional team—all the while secretly aware that random luck and not exceptional talent propelled him—he eventually winds up back in his home town, content with an existence not quite as humble as his factory worker father’s, but not far off. “I returned to the times,” he admits, “where sitting on a bar stool and getting bought a pint was enough to feel on top of the world.”

The understated poignancy of “I Am Super Legend” is, however, just a warm-up for Ruotolo’s prodigious heartstring-plucking: the next two stories, while also written with a light touch and restrained compassion, are frankly devastating. In “The Child Comes Home,” Maria, a black market jewelry seller, is paralyzed by grief ever since the unexplained disappearance, ten years earlier, of her nine-year-old son. Divorced from the child’s father, she falls in love with a jeweler who is kind to her, even as she scarcely believes that anything good can happen in her life. In the hours Maria spends with her lover, she wonders whether she’s “returned to being happy, and if someone had asked her, perhaps she wouldn’t have been able to work it out.”

The third story, “Look At Me,” the collection’s crowning achievement, is told by a bar owner whose mother disappeared when he was a young child. As a result he felt nothing for her, or so he claims—not “a pinprick of loyalty . . . only the crushing grip of my father’s hand on mine when someone in the street asks us whatever became of her.” Also stemming from that loss is the narrator’s own romantic status: he is married to a virtual stranger, a “girl of not even twenty” who works at his bar and needed citizenship. “She’d asked me while I was making an espresso, in the tone of someone who’s asking for a half-day off work, and I hadn’t known what to say to get out of it.” The handicap of acquired pessimism, an ingrained legacy of loss, is a theme that runs through the book. (In “The Child Comes Home,” Maria “had learned at great cost that nothing is certain in this world, not even your little boy coming home.”)

By contrast, his father’s best friend, Cesare, has an incorruptible innocence that’s equally a blessing and a curse. Cesare delivers fizzy drinks on a three-wheeled van, comes to dinner every Saturday throughout the narrator’s childhood, and never even speaks—not because he is mute, it turns out, but because he suffers from a terrible stutter. Slowly and circuitously—Ruotolo’s plots follow an unpredictable and un-chronological route, with characters' carefully detailed backstories shading into each other—Cesare’s earnest quest for love takes center stage. For his first date via a “Lonely Hearts Club,” he borrows a too-snug jacket in order to wear the recommended red carnation: “It pulled on his shoulders and left the poor devil’s wrists uncovered, but, all in all—and since he had polished shoes on his feet—he cut quite a figure.”

Ruotolo’s straightforward prose style—whose charming colloquialism McReadie skillfully reproduces, while retaining some of the distinctive cadences of Italian—belies the originality of her stories, which channel a timeless, almost ancient, wisdom in a form that feels new. The starting point is always seemingly random and tangential, not so much in medias res as in left field, and even after reaching the end, the reader would be hard pressed to say what each story is “about”: if the characters reach epiphanies, they are of the most un-dramatic kind. With her wide-ranging perspective, and an almost eerily believable rendering of silent suffering, Ruotolo has created slices of life in the best sense of the phrase. Yet the overall message, to the extent that a book as un-preachy and subtle as I Stole The Rain has one, is that life’s glories are best sought in the commonplace. “You just need to have something to focus on in life,” the narrator of “Look At Me” reflects, “a child on the way, the sound of footsteps outside the door, a set program on the radio, some hope at the root of everything.”

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