Using the image of close needlework – where patterns are formed by holes in the cloth – Bernardi tells a cross-generational story of Italian families that begins in Italy, travels to America, and eventually comes full circle. Imola lives in Northern Italy, caring for her children. Her brother Egidio sets out for America and eventually finds work in the mines of New Mexico. He seems content with his lot, but his friend Antenore Gimorri is not. He stirs with all the passion of turn-of-the-century labor activism.
When Egidio is killed in a mining accident, it only confirms Antenore’s suspicions about the value of the labor force and the need for change. The story skips ahead decades, through Antenore, to Chicago. Adele, a fully assimilated American, returns the story to Italy in search of her family’s past and stumbles upon the novel’s beginning. Bernardi uses the openwork metaphor in the end as the generations talk to each other over the years and lives.
At times, I didn’t feel myself as connected to these characters as I could have been. Bernardi veers between prose and poetry at times, rendering action – such as the mining accident – in verse and short bursts of description. It’s obvious she cares about these people and the world they inhabit, but this gives the reader an unwelcome distance. However, it also keeps the story from veering into sentimentality. Other novels have chronicled the immigrant experience, the cross-generational American story, and what it was like to live during the Great Depression, two world wars and the upheaval of the sixties. Because this is all well-tended soil, perhaps it was wise of Bernardi to employ this style.