The Florios of Sicily

Written by Katherine Gregor (trans.) Stefania Auci
Review by G. J. Berger

Translated from Italian, this novel follows seventy years of the 19th century’s most powerful real-life family of Sicily. The story opens in 1799 with one more earthquake rattling the town of Bagnara in southern Italy. Paolo Florio has had enough of his hardscrabble existence and constant worry. He moves to Palermo, Sicily, with his young wife (Giuseppina), his brother (Ignazio), and infant son (Vincenzo).

Crowded, dusty, smelly, expensive Palermo makes nothing easy for these low-class outsiders. Giuseppina hates that she must leave behind a comfortable country home and follow her husband. Working day and night in their small spice shop, the brothers begin an upward climb. After Paolo’s too-early death, brother Ignazio and son Vincenzo build on the spice trade. Vincenzo, equal part guile and anger, grows up quickly and succeeds at other ventures—tuna processing, shipping, insurance, banking. Revolts by poor locals against outside rulers, a cholera epidemic, trade wars, jealous competitors and pirates always threaten what the Florios have achieved.

Layered into this story are two heart-tugging romances. Widow Giuseppina and her brother in law (Ignazio) share years of a deep but unrealized love. Vincenzo falls hard for beautiful Giulia, takes her as his mistress and marries her, but only after the birth of their third child and first son. She, every bit as determined and clever as Vincenzo, is treated as an outcast whore in a male-dominated world, where class status and female virtue count for too much.

Auci expertly weaves the details of the times and locations through the various historical events. Her many characters all ring true. Their true-to-life interactions, emotions and dialogue make it easy for readers to care. Her prose is clean but hardly dull (“Today, anger and triumph taste the same”). Overall, this epic tale is a pleasure. Highly recommended.