Joanna goes to Italy where she meets a young girl who bears a startling resemblance to her deceased daughter, raising issues Joanna has with death as well as providing hope that the afterlife exists. The book features respective stories of five Italian women who are cousins - Joanna, Rosemary, Nancy, Barbara, and Angie. These characters experience their own versions of hope and loss, with ideas of the afterlife affecting all of them.
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Married couple Joanna and Elliott arrive in Rome on Good Friday and have hardly settled into the city when they have one of their many arguments, over whether or not to buy car insurance. Beneath their bickering lies a past tragedy: they lost their young daughter, Jill, a few years ago in an accident.
After having dinner at the villa where they are staying, Joanna sits in front of a cozy fireplace eating chestnuts roasted by Paolo, the owner of the villa. She thinks about her father who used to roast chestnuts and how he is currently battling pneumonia in Boston. Thinking about her father brings on thoughts about Jill.
During breakfast the next day, Joanna eats alone because Elliott has gone for an early morning hike. She notices a little girl on the staircase, her eyes transfixed on Joanna. After greeting the child, Joanna hears a woman calling out to the little girl, who is named Elisabetta. Joanna is amazed at how Elisabetta looks so much like Jill. When Elliott returns, she asks him if he sees the resemblance, to which he says it's there, and then she asks Paolo if she can take Elisabetta with her and Elliott to their trip to Deruta, a nearby town. Elisabetta's mother agrees that she can go with them.
During their excursion in the town, Joanna continues insisting that Elisabetta and Jill look alike, which irritates Elliott. However, he's glad to see his wife smiling again after she has been battling such deep depression.
On Easter Sunday, Joanna feels happier than she has in a long time. She and Elliott head over to her aunt and uncle's home just outside of Rome, the location reminding her of being there with Jill during their last trip. They attend a local church where Joanna's aunt and uncle renew their vows during a beautiful service. During the reception, Joanna starts to feel sick and says she needs to go to the ladies' room. She ends up walking outside all the way up a hill instead, to where her grandparents had been buried. She thinks about how her psychiatrist had told her life is filled with loss.
Joanna gifts Elisabetta with a necklace and then tells the child's mother and Paolo that she wants to take Elisabetta to America. The mother is outraged, further so when Joanna grabs Elisabetta by the hand and rushes with her outside. There, the girl moves out of her reach as though something or someone pulls her away. Joanna gets her foot caught in something but she doesn't know what. All she remembers is her own voice calling out to the little girl like a wounded animal. Joanna wakes up in the hospital with Elliott by her side. She asks how her ankle is after she got it caught on something, and he says it's fine and that she didn't hurt it. She believes she was tripped up and Elliott tries to keep her calm. When they go back to Rome, she muses how people should understand she is mad because that is a natural result of losing a child.
Rosemary arrives at a restaurant to have dinner with her husband, Nate. Rosemary thinks about how earlier in the day she had been reading a letter someone had sent her. Rosemary works as an advice columnist. The letter had been from a teenage girl asking how she should speak to her mother about sex. Rosemary advised the girl to make meatloaf with her mother. If she could do that, she would gain the confidence to tackle any subject with her mother. Many of her advice columns feature recipes handed down from her grandmother. She believes that food and sex are the glue holding together her marriage to Nate, even though she knows that now that they are middle-aged the sex has dulled. They speak of their grown-up children while they eat, when Rosemary suggests they go to Italy because her cousin Joanna has found a beautiful villa there. Nate tells her needs to speak with her about something: he has been having an affair for the past few months and doesn't want to continue being married to her. Rosemary gets up and tips the table over Nate's lap before leaving.
Nancy is on a train in the Maritime Alps in France, watching a man play with his son. She thinks about her husband, Jean-Gorges, and wonders if he would have been a devoted father. Now that they are in their forties, she regrets that they didn't procreate. However, her biological clock and Jean-Gorges's failing kidney took the choice away from her. Nancy pays more attention to the boy on the train when his father leaves (she assumes to find a bathroom). When the train arrives at the station in Nice, the boy's father has still not returned so Nancy tells the boy that she will stay with him. He looks alarmed and doesn't respond. She realizes that he had not said a word to his father the entire train ride because he is deaf. She takes his hand and tells the conductors about the situation. They try to look for the man but cannot find him. Nancy takes the boy with her off the train and notices Jean-Gorges's shocked face when she arrives with him.
Nancy and Jean-Gorge enter the process of adopting the three-year-old boy, who they name Pierre. They are able to gain adoption in spite of Jean-Gorges's health condition (he is waiting for a kidney transplant) because they make the officials believe he is in remission. He and Nancy enter a transplant swap setup whereby Nancy can donate a kidney to someone (she wasn't a match for her husband) and he receives a kidney from someone else in the swap group. They both go into the hospital for surgeries around the same time: she to donate a kidney and him to receive one. Jean-Gorge tells Nancy that he doesn't regret her taking Pierre and that she looked radiant when she got off the train with him.
After her surgery, Nancy meets Maggie, the woman who received her kidney. She feels that she has given life in her own way, even though she never had children of her own. However, when she sees a dead duckling in the water of the pool at the hospital, she fears it's a bad omen. It is - she soon afterwards hears that Maggie did not survive. She feels like her best effort was thwarted and everything she went through was a waste.
In New England shortly afterwards, Nancy and Jean-Gorge board a plane to Nice to claim their son.
Barbara and Lenny live in a Gothic Revival house in which they sometimes feel odd presences. Items move around on their own or doors shake. Barbara feels like a lucky person in her life - some of the fortunate events that happened to her include not being caught out for having an affair early on in her marriage - but she feels imprisoned by her good luck when she sees all the tragedies that other people face.
A family gathering for Lenny's sixty-first birthday occurs. When Lenny can't blow out his candles, assuming they are a trick, Barbara thinks it is really a ghost. The next morning, there's a fire in the birthing room of the house. Rosemary, Nancy, Jean-Gorges, Pierre, and some other guests, watch while Lenny used a fire extinguisher on it. But the fire is out of control and they all have to run outside. When she watches the grim remains of her house, Barbara realizes she now knows what it feels like to have bad luck.
It's a winter's day when Joanna is staring at the window of a hospital where people have gathered, claiming to see an image of the Blessed Mother. She can't see it, though. When she goes home, she finds pictures of the Blessed Mother and prints them, before going into her studio where she wants to paint something artistic about the Blessed Mother. When Elliott finds her there, she asks him to accompany her to see the window of the hospital. He doesn't want to, but she asks him again, saying that she feels she has lost her skill and only sees death in everything. She later goes into the attic where she retrieves an old purple map of the Middle East that people said contained the face of Christ in it. Joanna had always been able to see it, but now she is unable.
Elliott changes his mind and accompanies Joanna to see the hospital window. While Joanna is complaining that she can't even make out a veil and Elliott also doesn't see anything, a woman comes to them and tells Joanna that even if they argue about what they don't see, they cannot argue that faithful people are gathered there because of their love for the Blessed Mother. A riot soon breaks out when a man jumps onto the dumpsters and declares the window is going to be taken away the following morning and argues that this must not happen. People shout in agreement and security guards try to get the man to jump off the bins. Elliott grabs Joanna's hand and they get into their car. When they are home later, they get into bed and Joanna rests her head on his chest while staring at a wall painting of a man in a tuxedo and a lady in a purple dress. In front of Joanna's eyes, the two of them start to dance until the woman looks straight at Joanna and smiles.
Angie, the youngest of the Ficola women, is considering having vertical gastric bypass surgery. Her live-in boyfriend, Roy, tries to persuade her out of it, but she is insistent. Growing up, she couldn't grasp her cousin Nancy's lack of appetite because she had always been battling with food and weight. In Nancy's wedding pictures, Angie had been hiding behind other guests, just like at all the other family weddings. She goes through with the surgery after which she feels like her digestive system has been thrown into disarray, but she's encouraged by doctors that it will get better. Her life is indeed changing for the better: she gets married to Roy and loses 120 pounds in one year.
Nancy expresses worry when Angie continues losing weight. She then finds Angie kissing Jean-Gorges in the sandbox behind her house. Nancy informs Roy about the kiss, and Roy wants to leave Angie. She breaks down in tears and when he pulls her up from the floor, her weak wrist snaps, making her require surgery yet again. Afterwards, Angie's stomach continues to become smaller. One morning she wakes up in tears, asking Roy to find her because she thinks he cannot see her. She tells Roy she doesn't want to have the surgery, making Roy look perplexed.
Rosemary's marriage falls apart and she does, too. She feels pathetic as she stops looking after herself but she is grieving the loss of her marriage. Soon her cousins join forces to try to help her regain control of her life. Nancy, Joanna, Barbara and Angie all send each other emails rallying support for Rosemary.
Angie feels like she is pulled more into Rosemary's drama than her cousins as she lives in closest proximity to her. She brings her cousin food and tries to get her to leave the house, but Rosemary is moody and doesn't eat. It is the super of her building, a gay man named Avery Sloan, who starts making a difference in Rosemary's life - much to the chagrin of her cousins. They spend a lot of time together. Rosemary invites Avery to meet her cousins.
At the gathering, Avery confesses to the cousins that he's not really Rosemary's super - he is a homeless man who has moved into the building. They ask him what he wants with Rosemary, to which he replies that he wrote to Rosemary's column when his grandmother died and felt solace in speaking to a stranger. He kept track of her life even when he went to jail. When the cousins leave, Rosemary and Avery continue speaking and make up in spite of the lies he told her. She realizes that she helped him during his difficult time and now he has oddly repaid her.
Joanna and her mother take Joanna's father, Marco, to his doctor's appointment. The doctor informs them that he has lung cancer. On the way back home, Marco expresses fear at what will happen to his frail wife who suffers from dementia if he dies. Joanna promises to her father that she will be there to help her mother. Marco says that he doesn't believe in the afterlife. She insists that the spirit does live on and thinks about the little girl, Elisabetta, from the Villa. She tells her father she thinks Elisabetta is really Jill. Marco confides in her about a man he knew at the villa who had died, but who recently appeared to Marco in his dreams. Marco told the man in the dream that he thought he had cancer and wanted to know why this had happened to him. The man had answered, 'why not?'
Marco dies and Elliot informs all the family members about it. Nancy hangs curtains when she receives the phone call while Pierre is jumping on the bed. She tells her son to stop, at which he replies that Uncle Marco likes it because he is also jumping on the bed. Immediately, Nancy knows that Marco has died even before Elliott tells her.
On the day of the funeral, Elliot declares to the family that Joanna has a painting to show them. She reveals a portrait of her father that she had started painting after his diagnosis. At the funeral, Angie's son, a toddler called Michael, stares at the ceiling and laughing. When asked what is wrong, he says that he can see Uncle Marco. Joanna's mother smiles, saying that people in the afterlife always reveal themselves to little children.
Joanna feels inspired. She knows that she will see her father again in some form at some time.
Best part of story, including ending:
It has an interesting paranormal element regarding the afterlife that is very intriguing.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene is when Pierre is jumping on the bed and tells his adoptive mother Nancy that Uncle Marco is doing the same. However, Marco has died, and as Nancy hears her son's words, she knows he has passed away. It is chilling but also special, as though the deceased family member has not left them.
Opinion about the main character:
Joanna is a woman who desperately loves and misses her deceased daughter, Jill. What I like is that she has a great intuitive force and feels energies around her, which make her very interesting. Her journey is one of an emotional landscape as she moves from being utterly distraught about her daughter's death to hopeful that the deceased continue to live on.