by Phil Ford
The All Henrico Reads 2013 book The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani has brought the idea of family history closer to home for a lot of readers. For book club member Hester Abbott, reading about the era of Caruso and the Met reminded her of a famous cousin.
A portion of the novel is set in early twentieth century New York City, during the heyday of the Metropolitan Opera and one of its first superstars, Enrico Caruso. Before there was Elvis, there was Caruso—one of the first globally known singers, due to not only his immense talent as a tenor, but the new affordable media of 78 rpm record albums. He made approximately 290 commercially released recordings from 1902 to 1920. Part of Trigiani’s inspiration involved listening to her grandmother’s Caruso record collection, inspiring the epic family story of love and loss.
“As I read the book, there was so much about Caruso,” said Abbot. “Then I got to the part when they were working at the Metropolitan Opera Company and making spaghetti for Caruso. I got to thinking, well, my cousin was there at that time, and she could have been eating spaghetti with them and partying with them.”
Abbott pulled out her old family pictures. On her father’s side of the family there were eight children and her father’s brother, John Easton, was the oldest. Uncle John had a daughter, and her name was Florence.
Florence Easton was a world renowned lyric dramatic soprano opera singer, singing at the Met from 1917 – 1929, the time of the story in the book. She performed with Caruso on many occasions.
“She was the lead singer with Caruso during his last appearance at the Met.” Abbott says.
Abbott met Easton only once. She was a very young girl at the time, but her cousin made a lasting impression on her.
“I remembered it vividly because she sang for the Detroit Opera House and she came to visit us in a taxi cab, which was a big thing back then. When she stepped out, I thought she was the most beautiful person in the world.”
Easton sang in about 150 operatic roles in four languages, and made over 100 records during the 1920s and 1930s. Abbott’s son, an avid record collector, even found one of Easton’s recordings, cleaning it up and having it framed for her birthday one year. Abbott’s father used to play her records all the time on his Victrola machine. Abbot particularly remembered “A Song of India”.
Caruso himself was clearly impressed with Easton’s immense talent. “Her head is a music box,” he once wrote. “She lifts off the lid, takes out one record and puts in another. That is the only way any singer could remember so many operas.”
Having such a connection to the time period and people, Hester Abbott felt that The Shoemaker’s Wife really brought the period alive to her. She could visualize her cousin with the novel’s characters, having a good time and eating gnocchi with Enrico Caruso.
“I am really happy that this book brought it all back to me and I am looking forward to having [Adriana Trigiani] autograph my copy.”
Trigiani will appear at Glen Allen High School at 7pm next Wednesday, April 24, for an informal discussion of The Shoemaker’s Wife and her writing career. Copies will be available for sale, as well as some of her other novels. She will autograph books following the program. The event is free and open to the public, and no tickets or admission fee are required. Seating is limited, and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open at 6:15pm.