Adriana Trigiani enjoys the kind of zealous fan base reserved for a handful of contemporary authors. And deservedly so: she takes good care of her readers, devoting time each week to phone chats and meetings with book clubs around the country, and maintaining a website that is frequently updated with photos, tour dates and other tidbits. More importantly, she delivers charming, dependably satisfying books that you know will be stuffed with quirky but likable characters. Her best-selling Big Stone Gap trilogy, as well as her stand-alone novels Lucia Lucia and Queen of the Big Time, all are helmed by strong women who take charge of their circumstances. This female-centric viewpoint has become somewhat of a hallmark of her books.
So Trigiani's newest offering, Rococo, may require a bit of an adjustment for her biggest fans. For one thing, the main character is gasp a man. But it turned out that writing from a male point of view was not as big of a stretch as she might have thought.
"It didn't end up mattering," said Trigiani. " In many ways it wasn't any different, because I was just involved in the personality of the character and the interpersonal relationships of the people in the book." Trigiani spoke with BookPage recently from her home in New York City, where she was juggling promoting Rococo with taking care of two-year-old daughter Lucia's bout of strep throat. Clearly excited about the new book, Trigiani gossiped in a "Can you believe they did that?" tone about her characters as if they were real-life friends.
"It's this small town just loaded with these colorful characters," she said. "I just had a ball with it." In Rococo, Trigiani delves more deeply than ever into matters of sexuality, faith and family. Bartolomeo di Crespi is the big fish in the small pond of Our Lady of Fatima, a small town in New Jersey. It's the early 1970s, and B is a highly successful interior decorator and a confirmed bachelor. When he's not decorating the most palatial homes along the Jersey shore, he's handling his own family, which includes his lovelorn sister, his cousin and confidant Christina, and an aimless young nephew looking to Uncle B for guidance.
B is also a devout Catholic whose dream project is to renovate the local church, where he served as an altar boy and still attends Mass every Sunday. B is rankled when he's initially passed over for the job. After a battle with the local priest, he gets the gig, but it turns out to be far more than he bargained for. Tasked with designing a new space that will inspire the coming generations of churchgoers, B realizes that he might not be up to the challenge. The renovation and the people he meets during it leave him questioning not only his abilities as a designer, but ultimately his faith.
Trigiani's fascination with family dynamics shines through loud and clear in her tales of the raucous Italian-American di Crespi clan. B's outrageous sister, Toot, could hold her own against Fleeta Mullins or Iva Lou Wade Makin, two tough-as-nails characters featured in the Big Stone Gap books. Forever looking for love in the most dead wrong places, Toot takes up again with her ex-husband while B tries to bite his tongue.
"This is the thing about families: we know everything about each other. We just don't talk about it," said Trigiani.
But Trigiani veers from her other works by writing Rococo as a reflection on the internal battle many wage about organized religion (or as B calls Roman Catholicism, RC, Inc ). She was particularly intrigued by what it must have been like for a practicing Catholic to function smack in the middle of the sexual revolution.
"Who among us doesn't struggle with institutions? Everything is designed to confuse, befuddle and upset you," she said. "But the beauty of religion, fundamentally, is it's where you learn how to pray that personal relationship you have with God outside the rules and regulations." Trouble is, B depends upon those very rules and regulations as the structure for his life, and his ambivalence about his sexuality complicates matters. While he routinely finds himself shoved into sexual situations with women, Trigiani adds another dimension to the book by making it clear B is unresolved about his feelings for both men and women.
"I wanted to write a character who really bought into religion, and then had to live in the world," she said.
Often surprised by the twists and turns her books take as she writes them, Trigiani admits she herself isn't sure whether B is gay. It doesn't much matter B has a full, rich life and seems content to be alone, at least for now.
"I think he is, but he doesn't know it yet," said Trigiani. "And if my character doesn't know it, I don't know it." This respect for her characters is another Trigiani trademark. An award-winning playwright, documentary filmmaker and television writer, Trigiani has spent her career creating interesting, wholly original characters.
She follows the old adage, Write what you know, focusing on places and themes plucked from her own life. In Rococo, she drew on her interest in interior design. Both her grandmothers were seamstresses with a wealth of knowledge about textiles, and Trigiani admits to being a bit of an amateur decorator herself.
"You come to my house, you go in my closet, there's a stack of fabric," she said. "I would be a decorator if I could." The world is so insane that our homes have really become our palazzos. Rococo takes its name from an elaborate French style of art and decorating that can be found in many churches. Trigiani liked the juxtaposition of this elaborate style with the more modern turn that decor took in the 1970s, which reflects the contrast between B's traditional belief system and the rapidly changing society in which he finds himself.
Throughout this fast-paced, abundantly charming novel, Trigiani focuses on the things that really matter: family, faith and home. Especially home. It is a deeply rewarding book that should make her legions of fans very happy indeed.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.