Happy Birthday Jane Austen and Happy Holidays to all her followers, enthusiasts, authors, and readers. Thank you Sophia for inviting me to share a little about my new novel Villa Fortuna and what I love about Austen’s work. I’m so excited to be at Delighted Reader on such an auspicious occasion.
I’ve been asked a few times why I write Austenesque or Austen-Inspired and what part of Austen’s work influences my own novels? As many of you know, I frequently write OOC (Out of Character,) choosing instead to focus on the themes of pride and prejudice in a modern world. I also enjoy taking the liberty of altering some of P&P’s characters’ traits to suit a contemporary audience. In doing so, I recognize that is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an angle that I love exploring. Let’s face it, two hundred years have passed and women are having premarital sex, moving away from home, and accomplished way more than their Regency counterparts. They are pursuing professions and not necessarily in search of a husband—even to acquire his good fortune. So, IMHO, a modern Austen-inspired novel should fit the social mores of the era and that will alter the way a man or woman acts and thinks; thus, the possible altering of the character of a person.
Among Austen’s many timeless elements, those of pride and prejudice are at the heart of my three modern novels, but Villa Fortuna also focuses on family. In this case, it’s an Italian-American family in New York City. Austen’s spotlight on family dynamics in all her novels is probably my favorite theme because she does it so well, and nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, has changed when it comes to family in two centuries. It is at the heart of her novels. In fact, it is a crucial element to understanding each character—then and now. They’re still loving, still embarrassing, still engaged in sibling rivalry, and still insane—and that’s just at holiday time!
Enter Villa Fortuna:
Dr. Elizabeth Clemente, our heroine, has returned home to NYC’s Little Italy for the reading of her great-aunt’s Last Will & Testament—and that —is one of the few reasons she would return to Arthur Avenue from Melrose Place. With her father deceased, and her mother living in Florida, all that remains in her childhood neighborhood are her two very dissimilar sisters, whom she loves dearly and in her opinion—live stereotypical lives. Oh, and the authentic cannoli might be worth the trip, too. What she doesn’t expect is the inheritance of a building named Villa Fortuna in an affluent section in Westchester County, and that, my friends, will end up bringing her home permanently. Kicking and screaming? Perhaps. It might take her awhile to adjust with a few sisterly arguments along the way, but romantic love helps her come around, along with the opportunity of helping her sisters achieve their dreams. Yes, true love is principal to Elizabeth’s shedding of her prejudice, but that last point, the family part, is key to her transformation.
The Will has been read and she’s returning home to LA, promising to come back:
“Sister hug,” Elizabeth ordered, holding out her arms as they came toward her again. Gina sniffled and Nicki uncharacteristically giggled as Elizabeth, feeling almost maternal, admitted, “I’ll miss you. I love you both, and I hope you know that you can accomplish whatever you set your minds to. Remember Mr. Carpo is here to help with anything you need and I’ll be back for Christmas. Don’t hesitate to call or text me whenever you want. Okay?”
Gina swiped at the tear rolling down her cheek. “Promise me you will come back for the holidays.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to get the time off. I do have some vacation coming to me.”
“I want your word,” Gina insisted.
“You have my word. I’ll be here, and we’ll have a grand opening the likes of which Etonville has never seen. Your salon will be such a success that no one’ll be able to take Villa Fortuna from us.”
Elizabeth turned away, heart heavy, almost regretful. Inheriting the building was one thing, but kick starting this future for her sisters was a commitment that might require her to reside in New York full time. The associated guilt that battled with the beckoning of the distant boarding gate made her a bit nauseous. Minutes later, lined up for the TSA body scan, a glance over her shoulder showed Gina and Nicki tightly holding onto each other. The eldest cried, as the youngest, hand clutching hip, looked ten shades of Sicilian pissed off.
One last glance backward as she neared the walk-in scanner, conjured the sad realization that LA wasn’t her home; it was just the place where she’d lived for the last sixteen months. Three thousand miles of separation suddenly felt far lonelier than it had before.
She does return home for Christmas, and she does keep her commitment to her sisters. And, as we and others hope, they’re not going to sit idly by counting down the days with sadness until her departure back to LA at the end of December.
When I think on Villa Fortuna, it reminds me of the good in Austen’s family theme: the sisterly love between Jane and Lizzy, Elinor and Marianne, even Jane Austen and her own sister Cassandra. I think of the tenacity of Mrs. Bennet and her concern to make sure that her daughters found suitable husbands, and the protection and care that Darcy gave to Georgiana acting as father, brother, and concerned guardian. I’m reminded of Col. Fitzwilliam, even Fanny Price and Edmund, and how cousins can be best friends and offer a little levity and perspective at the right time. I could bristle when recalling Lady Catherine, who was probably a larger embarrassment for Darcy then Mrs. Bennet was for Lizzy, but nevertheless her intentions were for the betterment of her deBourgh family, her sickly daughter. (Yes, that’s a bit of a rose-colored spin.)
But family doesn’t have to be blood relation, as evident by my husband, but also my best friend, the sister of my heart by another mother. We see this in Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte, the practical sister best friend to Jane and Lizzy, the proactive, rational yin to their yang. There’s Bingley, the baby brother Darcy never had, a happy-go-lucky young man, who brought some life to Darcy’s stoicism. Also, the comfort and rightness of Emma’s friendship with her Mr. Knightley allowed him to speak freely, take her to task to help her mature. Friends like these will take up your cause and have your back just as readily as your blood relations. They’re heaven-sent angels provided to counterbalance—relatives!
Post Hunsford, Villa Fortuna’s cast of secondary characters living in the sisters’ apartment building are what the Clemente sisters refer to as the “Messina Family.” Here they aren’t too happy with our hero and make their displeasure known, taking up Elizabeth’s cause in her absence.
Nearly frantic to talk with Elizabeth, Mike ran across the street, readying himself for the argument he knew was sure to follow.
After buzzing for entry, he stood in the cold, waiting to hear the heated reply from the speaker box outside the door to the apartment building. Two anxious minutes passed before buzzing again. “It’s Mike. Please open up. I need to speak to Elizabeth,” he spoke into the silent box, anticipating the click and response buzz, which finally came only without greeting.
The stairwell light turned on as the vestibule’s overhead round florescent flickered, working up to full illumination.
Beside him, the kimono guy he greeted the Sunday prior opened his apartment door. “She’s gone, pal,” he said raising three pinched fingertips and narrowing his eyes as if to say, “You jerk.”
An old man grasping a cast iron frying pan exited from the neighboring apartment.
Mike couldn’t help glaring at the first guy smashing his fist into his palm. He also remembered him from the photographs taken at the bakery, the hugs and kisses to Elizabeth.
Josie peeked her head down the walk up. “She’s on-a da plane,” followed by a series of tongue clicks and a shake to her gray head. She said something in Italian that he was sure meant having pine cones instead of a brain. Yes, he could concur. He had acted stupidly.
Brandishing a wooden spoon above her hair rollers, another woman exited her apartment, coming to stand beside Josie. “Whats-a matta with you? You got your head on backwards? A fanabala!”
Nicki descended the steps, wearing nothing more than an oversized T-shirt, but she gripped a cordless drill and depressed the trigger. The sound of the rotating bit echoed off the dirty plaster walls. Her five-foot-three inch form blocked the stairs to keep him from ascending. “Yo. You ain’t welcome here. Michelangelo!”
“It’s not as it seems, everyone. Really.” He fidgeted, shoving his hands into his pockets as he stood in the hallway. His face burned with embarrassment. He was about to be beat up by three senior citizens, a petite woman, and a cross-dresser with a unibrow. Nothing could be more degrading.
He gazed up the four flights and could make out another old timer leaning over the banister brandishing a baseball bat. Gina came to stand beside the man, calling out. “She left a few hours ago to take the red eye home, Mike.”
“I screwed up, Gina.”
“Yes you did, but so did she. Looks like our aunt Maria was wrong. I’m not the only stupido one around here.
So, if I could have given Elizabeth advice years before she decided that her family was an embarrassment, I would have said this: at this time of year, remember when you sit down to eat with your blood relations that they’re colorful, they’re embarrassing, and although loud, some may be hard of hearing (selectively or not,) but they love you. That’s intrinsic to the family dynamic. Paramount to reflect on is that they have the same needs as you: to be loved and happy and part of a family unit. Love them for their uniqueness and pray for patience; overlook their shortcomings (those things that drive you insane) and hope that the dysfunction doesn’t spread to the next generation. LOL. Remember, that you’re no perfect creature in some of their eyes either—Miss Bacteria-obsessed, OCD Doc Hollywood—and more importantly realize that you’re stuck with your relations by DNA. See, God does have a sense of humor after all. Trust me, all of the above I must remind myself when in the company of one or two of mi famiglia!
Jane Austen gave us excellent, concise offerings of many family dynamics within her novels. She totally “got it” and my guess is that she wrote from experience.
And what about our non-blood family? I say: Thank the heavens for them every single day, because they will keep you as sane as you keep them following a holiday dinner with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents—and even your spouse and children!
Wishing you all a joyful – peaceful – and bountiful holiday season filled with love and family!
Thank you again, Sophia for inviting me and Villa Fortuna to Delighted Reader, and thank you all for spending some time with me in my modern mind-set P&P world. Please share with us something about your family holidays to enter to win:
Swag gift for one Domestic Winner, includes e-book:
Music, Italian chocolate, cookies, handmade café plaque, Frangelico liquere, Villa Fortuna mug (specify Italian or Spanish famiglia/familia)
Also secondary winner open International: e-book