Friday, May 01, 2015

THE ARTISAN'S STAR, by Gabriella Contestabile

I've visited Italy twice. The first time was in 2013 and I based myself in Rome for a month making day trips to Naples, Siena and Florence, but stayed for a few days in Pisa. I was in the region of Tuscany mainly for the Pisa Book Festival. The second time was last year in southern Italy (based in Puglia) for three months. So when I got the chance to be a part of this book tour, I was elated!

There are two parts to this post: A guest post with the author and my book review. Please join me in welcoming author Gabriella Contestabile to Hello, My Name Is Alice!

GUEST POST: WHY BOOKS MATTER by Gabriella Contestabile
The last great I read was “Elizabeth Street” by Laurie Fabiano. It does what great books do –it wakes us up. I came to the U.S. as an immigrant many years after Fabiano’s grandparents. And while conditions for Italians in the late 50s had improved, the perceptions were the same. It’s hard to imagine today that there was a time when beautifully crafted Italian men’s shoes were vilified as “Mafia style,” and bread dipped in olive oil considered a barbaric practice. Fabiano’s book took me back to those times, when I was actually ashamed to claim my heritage, when my mom was criticized for wearing high heels and lipstick to work in a factory, and the school nurse called us in to ask my parents why I was given caffè latte at breakfast, and wine mixed with water instead of soda or milk for dinner, and the time a priest inside the confessional shut the portal on my mother because she couldn’t speak English.

More importantly, however, “Elizabeth Street” brings into focus the painful plight of immigrants then and now. The nationalities change over the years, but not the stories or the pervasive injustices. Fabiano takes us deep into the material, so much so you feel the anguish of people who left their families to go to a foreign country to earn so very little because they had no choice. As a reader you are inside this family’s world. You watch Nunzio wave to Giovanna from the ship holding one end of the yarn unspooled from her mother’s blanket. She holds the other until the boat pulls away.

But it’s the aftermath that makes this book the revelation that it is. I now pay more attention to the manicurist who tells me her daughter is in Ecuador, to the painter who just missed his son’s first birthday, and I realize, as they click through photos on their cell phones, how very painful this all is, and how unjust.

This is why art matters, why books matter. Art goes beyond the day-to-day flow of information and social media commentary. It hits us in the gut. It peels away the layers of indifference and bias, teaches us perspective and compassion. And more than any other medium it compels us to act. Family histories, portrayed so expertly by Laurie Fabiano and others, ensure these life lessons are not lost. They unite us as members of the human race. They make us better people.


Elio Barati pushes open the bedroom shutters to an awakening Florence. The irises are everywhere now, on his dresser, in the windowsills, in the markets, in the fields, in his mother's garden. Soon the contests will start and his flowers will be among the contenders. In his sixty-plus years he's placed in the International Iris Competition three times—with the Ballerina bulbs unfurling throughout the room.

Its colors match the brushstroke of gauzy rose light spreading across the sky outside. Down below the Arno moves along its sludgy course as its bridges show signs of life; solitary figures walk or ride across to the click of a stiletto or the purr of a

Florence is close to my heart. I made a last-minute, crazy decision to go to Florence for a day-trip from where I was in Pisa. That was in 2013. This book, The Artisan's Star, is set in Florence so the place is not foreign to me. It makes me so happy to be able to revisit it this year through this novel!

The Artisan's Star is also a fabulous read; rich in characters. Although I am not a big fan of perfume, I do use it (especially Italian perfume) and I loved that the author goes into detail about perfume making. I also like the slow pace of the book and because I have been to Italy and stayed there for months, I could really relate to the lifestyle portrayed by the author. I miss Italy. Very much.

This is a picture I took of the Arno River, Italy in 2013 when the sun was setting

So readers, be ready to be swept away by the rich memories, relationships, and the struggle to move on from the past to the future. I loved the storyline and since it is already well elaborated in the book synopses below, I will not go into the same details again. Suffice to say, there are many layers waiting to unfold and I invite you to embark on this Italian journey. I am a lover of Italy, I practice yoga (yes, yoga is in this story too!), and the complexity of human emotions resonated with me on so many levels when I read it. The Artisan's Star will always have a special place in my personal collection of Italian books.

Book Synopses: Elio Barati’s perfumery shop in Florence marks its entrance with a mosaic star. This shop immerses Elio in the artisanal world he loves, but he harbors a regret. As a young man he created a full-fledged perfume of jasmine, iris, and cypress at the renowned Ecole des Parfumeurs in Grasse—a fragrance his idealism and stubbornness boxed away before ever bringing it to light.

A second star now brightens Elio’s life, his daughter Romina, an artist. She has her father’s unrealized talent, a precise and intuitive sense of smell. She's also inherited more challenging traits of Elio's: unbridled ambition and an insatiable wonder for the world.

But changes ripple through modern-day Florence. Artisan traditions wane; and when Romina tells her father she has no intention of running the family business Elio fights to hold on to the Florence he cherishes. Confronting the lost opportunities of his youth, Elio is thrust into this journey by five spirited women: his Greek mother, Elena; his mentor Palma; his soul mate, Marina; his astronomer wife, Sofia; and finally his beautiful artist daughter, who like the city of her birth, shows him how tradition and modernity can and must co-exist.

Now he must alter his own path by harnessing the transformative powers of the fine and artisanal arts. 


Gabriella Contestabile is an author, educator, and owner of SU MISURA JOURNEYS, a boutique travel company connecting people to the artisans of Florence. She emigrated, with her parents, from Italy to New York City in 1959. In her pre-writer life, she worked as a foreign language teacher, management development specialist, and fragrance/cosmetics executive. Gabriella is a strong advocate of the arts, of multiculturalism, and of social justice—a passion inspired by reading Dickens and Dante at a very young age. She has been an active volunteer with Dress for Success for over eight years and is a member of the Slow Food NYC Food and Farm Policy Task Force. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, her daughter, her mom, and a furry Shih–Tzu named Oreo. The Artisan’s Star is her first novel. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, also set in Italy, and a screenplay.

Connect with Gabriella: Website  ~  Facebook  ~  Twitter  ~  Su Misura ~ Amazon Author Page

Barnes & Noble

Many thanks to Laura Fabiani from Italy Book Tour for the opportunity to be a part of Gabriella Contestabile's book tour.

Thank you, too, for stopping by! Your comments are most welcomed.