Book Review: A House in Sicily, by Daphne Phelps

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”):
I am sure I came across this book while perusing blogs about Italy, however dear reader, I have had this book since early September and I can no longer remember how I found it. Suffice it to say, it is about a house in Taormina, which is just north of Catania (where I live) and that was interesting enough to attract me.

Ms. Daphne Phelps tells us her provocative story in an antiseptic manner. She hints at daring adventures and dishes on the sordid affairs of her friends, but Ms. Phelps never reveals any of her own tawdry tales. Nevertheless, if you are at the beginning of a romance with Sicily the way I was, you can fall in love with Ms. Phelps’ Sicily. She takes us to Motta, where I was living when I read the book, she introduces us to puppeteers (world famous!) and she shares her own unexpected love story – falling in love with a culture, a house and a new world.

The prose of her book suggests that Ms. Phelps was a no-nonsense type of woman. What humor is to be found is extremely dry, though she produced a surprising chuckle or two from me when I picked up on the wit behind her sardonic text. Do not expect an emotional journey in this book; instead, it reads as travel book might – plenty of specific details in some areas, and leaving others completely unexplained. Overall, I loved this book, because I enjoyed imagining my upcoming adventures through Ms. Phelps’ experience. My heart is enamored with Sicily for now. Time will tell if I fall as deeply in love with the island as Ms. Phelps did.

Best Excerpts:

“Once I was lunching with Piero in the hotel at Gela when a waiter told me there was a man wanting to speak to me. He was not asking for me by name. This seemed odd. Did he not know me? After lunch he came forward carrying a parcel wrapped in newspaper. He said it was a Greek vase. Would I like to buy it? Piero was just behind me so, although full of curiosity, I virtuously said no. Piero, who had the right to confiscate immediately any contraband, stepped forward saying he was interested. Strangely the man didn’t know who he was; it seemed odd that he had not taken the trouble to learn the identity of the only two men with the right to confiscate. Encouraged, the would-be seller opened the parcel. He wanted 12,000 lire for what looked to my unskilled eyes to be a black, two-handled crater in perfect condition. Piero carefully examined it, turning it over and over, then finally said he wasn’t interested. Diappointed, the man wrapped it up and went off.
‘Whatever was all that in aid of? What is it?’
‘A black crater.’
‘Then why didn’t you confiscate it?’
‘We already have three others like it. If we confiscated everything we are shown, we should have no friends among the peasants. We want them to bring us their finds instead of going straight to the Mafia.’
It seemed reasonable, but I would have liked to buy that vase.

p. 148


“One beautiful morning we started down the rocky path to the beach where a fair was held each month. We soon overtook an old couple leading a sheep and two lambs. In pure Sicilian, which I couldn’t follow, and with a great deal of shouting and waving of hands and arms, a bargain price was fixed. I suggested therefore that there was no need to take the poor animal all the way to the beach when he would have to be dragged up the hill again. The old man thought it was a good idea, but his wife, evidently the manager, was against, so we all continued down.

While we looked around at the crowded and gay scene with peasants, horses, pigs, sheep and, alas, songbirds in cages, Turiddu [Ms. Phelps’ Sicilian companion] kept an eye on his lamb. Soon we saw him advance angrily on the old woman. She was sitting bolt upright on the sand with her legs stretched out in front of her, a kerchief on her head to keep off the hot spring sunshine, munching away on a piece of bread and pretending to be not the least interested in Turiddu. Obviously she had insisted on the whole troupe coming down because she had hoped to find a more generous purchaser. She continued munching steadily, feigning deafness as his voice rose highter and his gestures became fiercer. But suddenly she gave up and took the notes he was waving, with ever-increasing fury, in front of her nose. ‘Martino’ was ours at the price first fixed.

He was a splendid animal and surprisingly clean; he had clearly been laundered before his sale.

“Turiddu, why Martino?”

He looked at my pityingly for my ignorance: ‘All lambs are called Martino.’

p. 130-131

ISBN: 0786707941

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