[8 April 2003]
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
The mysterious is big business these days. From Signs to John Edwards’s Crossing Over to Touched by an Angel and the testimonies of miraculous healings on Christian television, our culture is enamored with the unexplainable in all its many variations. This global grab bag of The Strange crosses all religious, ethnic and political lines.
Believers as well as head-shakers flock to a Florida finance company to see the two-story high image of the Blessed Virgin in its tinted windows that remains there for 3 weeks. Muslims all over the world are finding the word Allah spelled out in the seeds within melons and eggplants. People of all persuasions have sighted crosses of golden light over Southern California, Germany, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the Philippines. On a Hindu holy day recently, temples all over India reported that the statues were actually drinking the milk offerings made by the devout.
And, of course, we have all those folks who’ve been abducted by aliens, seen UFOs, had past lives, have extrasensory powers, chat with the dead, and know the identity of the antichrist. A writer in the Southwest claims he paid her a visit one night dressed in an Armani suit.
Fortunately, D. L. Smith’s debut novel, The Miracles of Santo Fico eschews the sensational. Instead, the book is a wry and whimsical comedy of errors in which human foibles and the providential hand of fate mysteriously combine to create happy accidents when least expected for a remote town in Tuscany in desperate need of miracles.
Off the beaten path for tourists, Santo Fico has been languishing economically since it was built by mistake by a Medici in the 1500s with a poor sense of direction. The beginning of this new millennium, not surprisingly, finds the misbegotten village in worse shape than ever. A few years earlier, a group of enterprising local kids had come up with a clever scheme to lure visitors and curiosity-seekers to the town, but that’s past history. The public relations deception that put the town on travelers’ maps for a brief while not only backfired, but has apparently brought some sort of curse upon the place.
The beautiful fountain in the center of Santo Fico has mysteriously dried up—and so have the personal lives of its citizens. The parish priest is losing not only his health but his faith, with no counsel or comfort to offer his sorry flock who have failed marriages, offspring gone wild, and inexplicable burdens of guilt. The kids who once tried to reverse Santo Fico’s fortunes have fared particularly poorly as adults and lost their way in a morass of insoluble problems. Bitterness, despair, and spiritual malaise erode the villagers like dry rot.
What happens to change the lives of the inhabitants of Santo Fico and the fate of the remote little village is both miraculous and hilarious. Can the mysterious be comical? Does God have a sense of humor? Is life a cosmic joke? You bet it is, and when The Miracles of Santo Fico isn’t making you laugh out loud, it will make you think.
This novel is Italian grand opera, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and an upbeat 21st century take on The Bridge of San Luis Rey rolled into one. There’s love, sex, death, crises, catastrophes, natural disasters, manmade disasters, human foolishness, heavenly interventions, epiphanies and food. Wonderful Tuscan food, mouth-wateringly described. And while one is drooling over the delicacies, one can ponder cosmic ironies as handsomely prepared by the author for your enjoyment as a plate of involtini in umido or tagliolini alla frantoiana. What more can one ask for from a book?
It’s no small miracle for an author to come up with a first novel that enchants almost every reviewer who picks it up. Smith has accomplished the literary equivalent of walking on water, creating an engaging book of great charm and across-the-board appeal that also touches upon serious themes without becoming ponderous or pretentious. In the great tradition of “mystic fiction,” this work succeeds on any number of levels, according to the reader’s comfort zone and predisposition. Much like Moby Dick can be happily read by kids(or adults) as just a sea yarn and the current bestseller Life of Pi be interpreted as a Pacific adventure story, Santo Fico can be pretty much what you want it to be and resemble anything you fancy. It’s a romance, it’s an Italian farce, it’s like Chocolat or Under the Tuscan Sun, it’s reminiscent of Il Postino or the funny-sexy-sunny Sicilian films of the 1960s with Marcello Mastroianni or . . . well . . . whatever.
But, if one wants to look a little deeper, there’s plenty of food for thought here. It is a curiously timely and thought-provoking little book in a deceptively simple disguise. Without making a big deal out of it or getting preachy on us or turning treacly or going over-the-top metaphysically speaking, Smith offers the encouraging view that there is order in chaos, pattern in randomness and meaning in what seems senseless. The novel reminds us of moments in our own lives when, with the remarkably clear vision of hindsight, we can see how adverse events inexplicably became the avenues of good fortune for us.
In uncertain and troubling times, it is always comforting to hear that maybe, just maybe, everything somehow works for the ultimate good (in ways we don’t necessarily understand at the moment), that our lives have purpose and significance, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel—and it isn’t the train rushing at us, either.