Zoe Ferraris' latest book is called Kingdom of Strangers.
I grew up in frank adoration of The Godfather, entranced by Don Corleone's dark charisma. He reminded me of the Italian men in my own family, the kind who could silence you with a dead-eyed look and who seemed to have some deep, silent, absolute authority. It would either inspire you or crush you, but either way it kept you in line.
But however much I adored all that was dramatic and Italian about The Godfather, I was also female enough to ask: Why are there no interesting women in this book? Why would a novel that popularized an Italian concept of family portray its women as forms in the background, cooking pasta, and crying and acting as ridiculous foils to their men?
Many years later, I stumbled on one of Puzo's early novels, The Fortunate Pilgrim. First published in 1964, it predates The Godfather by five years. I was still smitten enough with the author to buy it, but I cracked it open expecting some sloppy precursor with guns, macho posturing and sex. Instead, I found a gorgeous literary novel that is fierce and brilliant, and that tackles the big stuff unreservedly — life, love, poverty, death — without any silly linguistic flourish.
Fortunate Pilgrim is the story of Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo — a wretchedly poor mother of six who is living in Hell's Kitchen back when the name actually fit. The Depression is looming, her husband is in a madhouse, and her family is hungry. Her oldest daughter, Octavia, has been acting like an American, and her son, Larry, is flirting with the mafia. In the rigid social structure of the Italian neighborhood, she has few allies.
But Lucia Santa is not going to cook pasta and cry. This single mother struggling to survive is utterly cold-blooded and savage. The children tremble before her, because they understand what violence underpins her life. Yet they live by the omerta code of silence and protect her just as passionately as they race to avoid her beatings with the Tackeril.
Lucia Santa is vulnerable, and Puzo shows her self-doubt with surprising tenderness — seeing her husband in the hospital, his face one of "hopeless satanic madness," she crumples inside. But when she has to decide whether to bring him home, her humanitarian impulses clash with the brutal reality of her situation. She cannot afford to be generous. What emerges is cold strength: In order to keep her family intact, she sentences her husband to an institution for the rest of his life.
Puzo once said that he could never have created the Godfather without Lucia Santa. "Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time."
Mannaggia Gesu Crist! After all these years to discover that the all-powerful Don is actually based on a woman!
Even though The Godfather was a huge success, Puzo looked back to The Fortunate Pilgrim as the work that made him most proud. Writers do retrospective looks all the time — and readers usually disagree with them. But here I think Puzo was right: This is his best work.
The Godfather may have its dark men with their strange charisma, but Pilgrim has something better — an unflinching grasp of human darkness.
Plus, as it turns out, Puzo really can write women — flawlessly, and in all fullness.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Even if you haven't read a book by Mario Puzo, you probably know at least one character he wrote. Here's a clue, Marlon Brando played him in the movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GODFATHER")
MARLON BRANDO: (as Don Vito Corleone) I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life. I don't apologize to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those big shots.
CORNISH: "The Godfather" is Puzo's best-known novel. The writer Zoe Ferraris, Italian-American herself, thought she knew everything there was to know about Puzo. Then she stumbled on one of his earlier works, and it surprised her. She recommends it for our series You Must Read This.
ZOE FERRARIS: There's this dark charismatic thing about the Italian men I grew up with. They were like Don Corleone in "The Godfather." All that personal power would either inspire you or crush you, but it kept you in line. Growing up, I loved that book, but I didn't understand why there were no interesting women in it. All they did was cook pasta and cry in the background. This was supposed to be the novel about Italian families, so where were the senoras? And then I discovered "The Fortunate Pilgrim."
It was a book that Mario Puzo wrote in 1964, five years before he wrote "The Godfather." I was expecting some sloppy book with guns and sex and macho guys, but it's not that way at all. It's literary and brilliant and covers all the right stuff: life, love, poverty and death. The story is about Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo. She's an Italian woman living in Hell's Kitchen in the late 1920s. She's really poor, but she has other problems too. Her husband is in a madhouse. Her oldest daughter is acting way too American, and her son is getting mixed up with the mafia.
But Lucia isn't exactly the crying pasta-cooking type. She's keeping her family alive through the worst circumstances in this tough, almost savage way. We do see her act vulnerable. In one scene, her husband is hospitalized after he threatens their baby girl. You can feel her crumble. But then she has to decide whether to bring him home, and she's just so terrifyingly cold about it. She can't afford to be generous. So her husband stays in the hospital forever.
Puzo once said that Lucia Santa was based on his own mother, and that he never could have created "The Godfather" without her. He even wrote: When the godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind, I heard the voice of my mother. Mannaggia. After all these years, it turns out that the don is actually based on a woman. Mario Puzo liked "Fortunate Pilgrim," the best of all of his books. And I have to agree. "The Godfather" can keep its macho guys. I'll take this Italian mama any day.
CORNISH: Zoe Ferraris recommending Mario Puzo's novel "The Fortunate Pilgrim" for our series You Must Read This. She's the author of "City of Veils." Her new novel, "Kingdom of Strangers," is out next month. At our website, you can find details about all the You Must Read This selections along with lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's all at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.