Hope and laughter from a patron saint
Dear Christine Simon,
Normally I write a book review in this space, and I intend to do so here in regard to your novel “The Patron Saint of Second Chances” (Atria Books, 2022, 304 pages). But as this is also a thank you note as well as a look at your book, I am breaking ranks with my usual template of review.
Right from the first chapter, your Signor Speranza, vacuum repairman and the unofficial mayor of Prometto, Italy with its population of 212, snagged my attention and had me grinning as I sat reading in the shade of my front porch. You begin with a young plumbing inspector examining the pipes in the Speranza family hotel, an inspection which will determine whether the town’s water system needs repair. Failure of this inspection leads to extensive and expensive work, or the cutting off of Prometto’s water supply, which will close down this village and scatter its inhabitants. After the plumber cuts into the wall of a hotel bathroom, we have this scene:
It was the junior inspector’s turn to gasp as he shone his flashlight into the hole.
“Signore!” he cried. “What is this?”
Resuming his earlier sangfroid, which at this point was the only thing he had left, Signor Speranza glanced into the hole, crossed his arms, and sniffed.
“I think it’s Hubba Bubba.”
This patching of a leaky pipe with bubblegum made me burst into laughter because I myself once did the same thing. When I owned the Palmer House Bed and Breakfast in Waynesville, the dilapidated old building had a dozen or more leaks, and the plumber, who became a friend, needed three days before he could begin the job. So I set to work.
The first leak I repaired was at the intersection of four pipes in the basement, squirting out a stream of water like one of those garden statues where a boy pees without end into a fountain. I was no plumber at all, but necessity being the mother of invention, I dispatched my brother to the convenience store just up the street. He returned with several packs of Bazooka gum, we chewed, we pushed the sticky mess over the pinprick hole and then secured it with a clamp designed for automobile engines. No more leak. In fact, that leak never reappeared in the 20 years I owned the house.
The smile brought by your opening rarely left my face as I read the rest of your book, following Signor Speranza (I liked that his name means “Hope” in English) through his madcap scheme of making a movie to raise the 70,000 euros needed to repair the town’s plumbing and so save Prometto, all the while concealing this impending disaster from his fellow townspeople. You introduce us to a platoon of these folks: the devout but no-nonsense priest Don Rocco, the bull-like and sometimes violent butcher Maestro with his horde of sons, the lovely and sweet Antonella, who wants a starring role in the film, and Senior Speranza’s assistant Smilzo, who has a major crush on Antonella and who writes the film’s script. Much like the unchanging world of English manners and mayhem created by P.G. Wodehouse in his books, “The Patron Saint of Second Chances” gives us an idealized backdrop against which all this hilarity takes place.
Particularly amusing, at least for me as a Catholic, was Signor Speranza’s Compendium, from which he often sought help as he appealed to the saints described in those pages as patrons of various causes. (The Church is occasionally amusing in these connections. In 258 A.D., for example, the Romans martyred Saint Lawrence by roasting him alive on a giant gridiron. At one point, so legend has it, he called out to his torturers “I’m done on this side. You can turn me over.” Today he is the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians.)
And particularly endearing was the way the making of the movie helped Gemma, Speranza’s young daughter and a mother to the lively four-year-old Carlotta, escape her deep sadness, fall in love, and repair her broken relationship with her father.
Best of all, however, were the plot and the characters. You avoided those dreary “-isms” that infect some of our contemporary literature, the political and cultural debates of the day. Instead, you have given us a timeless story that celebrates laughter, zany humor, common sense, and the human heart.
Even in your “Acknowledgements,” in which you salute everyone from your husband and four children to your mother and grandmother, you convey a sense of fun and humor. You include a recipe for pane pazzo, a footnote on the Compendium (the real “Comprehensive Dictionary of Patron Saints” by Pablo Ricardo Quintana), a hat tip to the movies that influenced you in writing about Senor Speranza’s foray into film, and even a vision of Prometto during the pandemic, where “I can see Signor Speranza’s consternation when his mask wilts his magnificent moustache.” You finish by writing of that image, “I am back there, and I am laughing. Grazie, signore.”
And grazie to you, Signora Simon. If nothing else, “The Patron Saint of Second Chances” has given readers some smiles and joy in being alive, gifts which these days are worth their weight, if not in gold, then at least in a basket of crocchette di patate.
All my best to you, and good luck with your future writing,