Simonetta Agnello Hornby The Almond Picker

ISBN 13: 9780141019093

The Almond Picker

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9780141019093: The Almond Picker

A surprising mystery--and love story--set in rural Sicily

Like many memorable works of fiction, The Almond Picker hinges on a question, in this case: who is Maria Rosalia Inzerillo, known as Mennulara, the almond picker? Born into a desperately poor Sicilian farming family, Mennulara went into service when she was only a girl, as a maid for a well-to-do local family; by dint of hard work and intelligence, she became the indispensable administrator of the family's affairs and was said to be rich. Still, she was a mere servant, and now (as the story begins) she is dead.

Who was she, really? Simonetta Agnello Hornby's wonderfully entertaining novel about this mysterious woman -- a bestseller in Italy when it was published in 2002 -- has all the suspense of a witty thriller, the emotions of a powerful love story, and the evocative atmosphere of a historical novel. Set in Sicily in the 1960s, a violent, complicated society in the midst of tumultuous change, where young and old, rich and poor, men and women are set against each other, The Almond Picker is the story of a woman who negotiated for her freedom as no one else dared.

Unusual instructions in Mennulara's will perplex the family she worked for and send the children on a kind of treasure hunt, for each of them wants to secure her fabled riches. She is no longer physically present, but her mysterious importance to them and to the village comes into focus in a series of dramatic encounters and spiky exchanges among the neighbors. Everyone has a very different idea about Mennulara's amazing life. Was she a humble servant who ruled her master, or perhaps a pawn for the Mafia? Was she a seducer and opportunist, a sly blackmailer waiting for a payoff, or the opposite? During the thirty days following her death, the surprising truth is revealed.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Simonetta Agnello Hornby was born in Palermo. She finished her law studies in England, where she now lives and where she is president of the Tribunal of Special Educational Needs. This is her first book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt from The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby. Copyright © 2002 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano. To be published in March, 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
1. Dr. Mendicò attends a dying patient
Dr. Mendicò suddenly felt exhausted, his legs stiff and his arms tingling. He had been in the same position for over an hour, Mennulara's hands clasped between his, ceaselessly caressing her fingers with a delicate circular movement. He lifted his right hand, leaving his left--in which the deceased's hands lay, still warm--palm up on the sheet.

It was a solemn moment, which he knew well and which always moved him: the final task of a doctor defeated by death. Delicately, he closed her eyes. Then he arranged her hands, interlacing her fingers, laid them carefully on her breast, smoothed out the sheet, and drew it up to cover her shoulders before, finally getting up to inform the Alfallipe family that Mennulara was dead.

He stayed with them for as long as was necessary, gave Gianni Alfallipe the envelope containing the dead woman's last wishes, and hurried down the stairs of the small apartment block, coming across women neighbours on their way up to offer condolences. He had felt stifled in that flat; as soon as he went out the front door he walked off with small, slow steps, filling his lungs with the still-fresh morning air. The street was only a few dozen yards long but seemed longer because it was narrow and full of corners formed by the two- and three-storey buildings that over the centuries had proliferated at random, piling up one on top of the other and engulfing the earlier houses until they merged into what were two almost contiguous uneven walls, pierced only by two arches, like a tunnel, through which passed one of the many meandering flights of steps that formed the street network of Roccacolomba, a typical inland town clinging to the side of a mountain.

All at once Dr. Mendicòch remembered that he had not wound a rosary around the dead woman's fingers, as was the custom. In his mind's eye he revisited Mennulara's bedroom trying to work out how this oversight had occurred. It was an austere little room with only the basic necessities: a bed, a chair, a wardrobe, a lamp and a radio on the bedside table, and a narrow table that served as a writing desk, on which sat a metal tray holding pens, pencils, and a large eraser, arranged in perfect order. On the shelf were two photographs of her nephews and a rather faded shot of her parents, some notepads, and few books. The walls were bare, apart from a reproduction of Ferretti's Madonna and Child above the bed. Missing in the room were the feminine touches and the religious ingredients: the hodgepodge of holy images, statuettes of the Virgin and the local saints, and those bottles full of holy water brought home from far places that pile up on women's bedside tables; there wasn't even a rosary. Despite this, Mennulara's bedroom had given him the feeling of being permeated with a deep, almost monastic piety.

The strip of sky carved out by the irregular pointed roofs was dazzlingly bright, with only a hint of blue. The doctor stopped, took a deep breath, and looked up, staring intensely at the sky. "Who knows where her soul has flown? May God give her peace," he said softly before setting off again to take the steps that went down towards his house. The convent bell struck eleven. Dr. Mendicò thought he would have enough time before lunch to make the necessary telephone calls, have a coffee, and take a stroll: he needed to be on his own, to think. "Not even an old doctor like me gets used to death," he murmured to himself as he rang the doorbell of his home.
After seeing Dr. Mendicò to the door, Gianni went back into the living room. His sisters and mother were waiting for him in silence. Santa, the maid, did not dare go in, out of respect for the family and in accordance with Mennulara's orders. But she could not restrain her curiosity, and so she lingered in the corridor, leaning against the kitchen door, her face drawn and still wet with tears, her arms limp against her hips, and her ears cocked to pick up snatches of the conversation.

Signora Alfallipe was slumped in the armchair, her head thrown back, her eyes full of tears, her gaze vacant. Lilla was perched on the armrest, caressing her mother's forehead. Carmela was looking out from the balcony, waiting for her husband to arrive. "What did the doctor give you?" asked Lilla. Gianni showed her the envelope with his name written on it in Mennulara's large, untidy hand. At her sister's words Carmela turned to look at them. When she saw the letter, she rushed over, exclaiming, "It'll be the will. Don't open it; we must wait for Massimo," and, in an ever shriller voice, crying over and over, "We must wait for Massimo." Signora Alfallipe began to weep, feebly repeating, as if reciting a litany, "I knew Mennù would think of me; she really cared for me." Lilla and Gianni would have liked to open the envelope immediately, but they didn't dare, nor did they have time to argue with their sister, because Santa and the women neighbours burst into the room all at once, gesticulating and offering noisy condolences. The moment she saw them, signora Alfallipe dissolved into uncontrollable sobs and was instantly surrounded by the consoling women. "What will become of me? Mennù took good care of me. What shall I do now? Ill as I am..."

The Alfallipes were all hugged and kissed one by one, clasped in long embraces that left them smeared with the sweat of the women's armpits and the smell of the food they had been preparing: a blend of garlic, olive oil, tomato, parsley, and bread crumbs, an age-old odour that united the family in their disgust for the lower classes.

Lilla shuddered at the thought that, since her father's death, her mother had been living here in the same building as a fish merchant, the Alfallipe family's electrician, and some paper shuffler. She blessed the good fortune that had taken her to Rome, far from this vile town. Concealing her irritation, Lilla, after the last foul-smelling embrace, told the women that her mother was feeling ill and faint; luckily, Dr. Mendicò had given her some medicine and had prescribed bed rest. She and Carmela did not want to leave her alone, distraught as she was, and they would retire with her: the good ladies were welcome to go into the room where Mennulara was lying and to help Santa prepare the body, if they so wished, while the daughters would take care of their mother, who was so much in need of them at this distressing time.

Signora Alfallipe, by way of confirming these words--after all, being a doctor's wife, Lilla could speak with a certain authority about such things--slumped even lower into the chair, spreading out her arms and letting her hands dangle over the armrests, her head still lolling against the back. She started murmuring again, "I feel ill; I'm going to faint," whereupon the three children and Santa ran to her. At that point, they could not avoid the solicitous concern of the women, who bustled about dispensing advice. They carried signora Alfallipe to her bed, and each did her best to make the older woman comfortable: one brought a glass of water, another placed a damp towel on her forehead, another put a pillow behind her shoulders, and yet another took her pulse. Signora Alfallipe, gratified by their solicitude and worried lest any improvement might deprive her of the attention she was enjoying, increased her lamentations. It was then that her son-in-law arrived.

After Santa had telephoned that morning, waking them, to announce that Mennulara was dying, Massimo Leone had not dared accompany Carmela to the flat. He had opted to stay in Alfallipe House, a few minutes away, to await developments. Only when Carmela called him to say that the woman was in a coma did he feel he might be allowed to join her. Instinctively, he had complied with Mennulara's order: "I swear on my mother's soul that in my home, where I live, he shall not set foot"--an authentic excommunication. Massimo had been married to Carmela for seven years, and he was not even allowed to set foot in the entrance to the building or to call his wife when she was visiting her mother in Mennulara's flat. He had hated that damned Mennulara with a powerful hatred, and he hated her still. Now, finally, she was dead. Massimo felt liberated. He bounded up the stairs in a state of elation mixed with resentment: he would see her corpse, but he wouldn't be able to spit on it, as she deserved, because, judging by the chatter he could hear from the stairs, it was clear that people had already arrived to pay their respects.

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Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Published by Picador Usa (2006)
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