The Saint of Lost Things: A Novel

The Saint of Lost Things: A Novel

by Christopher Castellani

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“A moving evocation of the Italian-American experience, told with grace, compassion, and uncompromising honesty” from the author of A Kiss from Maddalena (Tom Perrotta, New York Times–bestselling author of The Leftovers).

It’s 1953 in the tight-knit Italian neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware. Maddalena Grasso has lost her country, her family, and the man she loved by coming to America; her mercurial husband, Antonio, has lost his opportunity to realize the American Dream; their new friend, Giulio Fabbri, a shy accordion player, has lost his beloved parents.

In the shadow of St. Anthony’s Church, named for the patron saint of lost things, the prayers of these troubled but determined people are heard, and fate and circumstances conspire to answer them in unforeseeable ways.

With great authenticity and immediacy, The Saint of Lost Things evokes a bittersweet time in which the world seemed more intimate and knowable, and the American Dream was simpler, nobler, and within reach.

“Beautifully, and movingly, Castellani shows an uncanny empathy for the American immigrant experience.” —Julia Glass, National Book Award–winning author of Three Junes

“A lovely novel filled with characters so fully realized that they . . . leave the fog of their breath on the page.” —Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of Butterflies

“Those who appreciate clear-eyed, unsentimental fiction will find its realism fresh and moving.” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565128859
Publisher: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/30/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 330
Sales rank: 138,757
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Christopher Castellani has published two previous novels with Algonquin—A Kiss from Maddalena, which won the Massachusetts Books Award for Fiction; and The Saint of Lost Things. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he is the artistic director of Grub Street, the Boston-based non-profit creative writing center. Author website: www.christopher


Arlington, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

December 7, 1972

Place of Birth:

Wilmington, Delaware


B.A., Swarthmore College, 1994; M.A./A.B.D., Tufts University, 1998; M.A., Boston University, 1999

Read an Excerpt


The Little Ladies of Wilmington

For a time, Maddalena knew so few English words that each carried memories from the day she'd learned it. The words were common and unrelated: vacuum, headlight, mouthwash. "Take an umbrella," her husband, Antonio, would advise, and suddenly she found herself back on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, making her first purchase with American money. "One uhm-brell-ah, please," she'd repeated as she approached the vendor, a fistful of dollars in her hand, Antonio a few steps away, guiding her with his eyes. The vendor had taken her money with a disinterested nod, not seeming to notice her accent. To celebrate this success, she and Antonio had spread a blanket on the sand and watched the storm clouds gather over the pier. When the rain came, they'd huddled under the umbrella until the lightning scared them off.

With the word apple came the opening and closing mouth of Maddalena's night-school teacher, Sister Clark, a woman so committed to training her students in proper pronunciation that she offered free private tutorials at the convent. Ah-po is the sound of the immigrant, Sister Clark had said, her lips in an exaggerated O; until you master your speech, no one will show you the respect you deserve. That's all it takes, she'd said: your tongue in the right spot between your teeth, a little concentration, and practice practice practice. Then America will smile and open her arms, loving as a grandmother.

Seven years have passed, and Maddalena has mostly forgotten the histories of the English words that come to her. On the bus today she thinks, Why do we keep lurching? then wonders where she learned this verb. Did she see it in a magazine? On a billboard? She practices, in honor of the recently deceased Sister Clark: I lurch; you lurch; the bus never stops lurching. Unlike most words, this one at least sounds like its definition. There are no extra letters, silent for no reason, to confuse her. In Italy, the country in which she was born, they'd pronounce the word "lurk," but lurk means something different here. Lurk is what the men do in the alleys near the bus stop, what Antonio does in the doorway at night before he leaves her.

The driver brakes hard and jolts Maddalena forward again. She looks up from her book, grabs the armrest, and snaps back against the seat. Her stomach has gone sour, and a dull ache spreads like a stain from one side of her abdomen to the other. She holds her breath. Ida, her sister-in-law, dozes beside her. Ida can sleep on these morning rides, but Maddalena cannot, even though she has lain awake most of the night. She can never sleep when she is keeping a secret.

She tries to determine whether the sourness in her stomach feels different from the everyday sourness caused by the lurching. Her skin looks puffier than normal, of that she is certain, but maybe the recent drop in temperature — Indian summer to crisp fall in twenty-four hours — bears responsibility. Among these extreme changes she seeks the third sign, the one that will convince her she is finally carrying a child.

The first sign occurred this past Sunday, when two deer strayed into the empty lot across from her house. The bigger one — the mother, Maddalena guessed — chewed on a white paper cup as her baby nuzzled at her side. They'd stood together in peace, content with the trash and the dead patches of grass at their feet. Then suddenly the mother looked up at Maddalena in the window. She stared at her for a long moment, cocked her head, nodded twice, then dashed back into the woods. The baby, lighter in color, its legs delicate as matchsticks, trotted after her in no hurry to catch up — as if it wouldn't have minded lingering a while. Until that morning, Maddalena had not seen a single deer in that lot.

The second sign occurred just yesterday, the start of the sixth week since her last monthly bleeding. She heard music in the factory, sweet chimes in the tune of a lullaby. Ida and the other ladies kept sewing unaware. Minutes later, their boss, Mr. Gold, walked past carrying a mobile of plastic daisies, which played the lullaby when he pressed a button on one of their golden eyes. A gift for his newborn niece, he explained. But since when did Mr. Gold walk around showing off baby gifts? And why was Maddalena the only one who'd heard the lullaby over the chattering women and the din of the machines?

Despite all this evidence, Maddalena will not allow herself to be sure. She and Antonio have been wanting a child for the seven years she has lived in America, and the signs have failed her again and again. All she knows of babies is the What that makes them; for the How and the When and the Why Not she must guess. She and Antonio have tried the What so many nights, followed always by his assurances, "We are becoming mother and father, my beautiful Maddalena; I feel it this time." As they lay beside each other, he'd tuck her hair behind her ear with trembling fingers and promise they would not be childless much longer. He repeated what Dr. Barone told them: you are both young and perfectly healthy; it is just a matter of time; the woman's body will act only when it is ready. Then, four months ago, without a good explanation, Antonio gave up hope. He decided that if Maddalena wasn't going to bring in a child after all, she could at least earn some money. And so, since early summer, he has cashed her paychecks from her hours in Mr. Gold's factory. They hide the bills in a pocket she sewed into the cornice of the drapes.

The bus stops in Chester, where dark-coated women wait in line in the rain. Maddalena waves good morning to Gloria, the Cuban, as she steps on clutching an enormous package wrapped in brown paper. If Maddalena feels chatty — today she does not — she can struggle through a conversation with Gloria, who speaks an unpredictable jumble of Spanish, English, and half-guessed Italian. Instead she closes her eyes and pretends to nap. As the bus nears Philadelphia, she puts her book — an Italian romance called Il Sogno della Principessa — in her purse and elbows Ida awake. It is 7:20. They have ten minutes to punch their cards.

The streets are more crowded than usual as the three women make their way. The late October air blows gusty and cold, shaking the half-naked solitary trees in their square grates along the sidewalk. Children in blue and white uniforms race past them, the girls with ribbons in their hair, the boys' shirts untucked and hanging below their sweaters. The rain has coated all the stone and asphalt in a slick sheen. Red and yellow leaves stick to their shoes, and Maddalena skids, nearly falls, as she makes the right onto Passyunk Avenue. Ida, in her clear plastic bonnet, yawning, takes her arm.

With three minutes to spare, they stand outside the front door. THE GOLDEN HEM, EST. 1948, says the newly painted sign above the arch. Ida refuses to enter the building until the second hand on her watch reaches 7:29. Maddalena finds this dangerous. If Mr. Gold sees them, he might think they do not value their jobs or need the money. The other ladies — not Gloria, who is on their side — shoot them looks on their way in. Maddalena makes no protest. After her husband, Ida is the most stubborn person she knows.

They work at adjoining tables, Ida and Maddalena in one row, Gloria and a Greek woman named Stavroula across the aisle. Stavroula, in her miniature black glasses and white hair, arrives on an earlier bus from New Jersey and rarely speaks. They are four of fifty women, arranged in rows on the first floor of an enormous windowless warehouse. They sew blouses and robes mostly, fashionable garments sold in stores they rarely visit, and make seventy-five cents an hour no matter how many they finish.

Maddalena and Ida have just switched on their machines when Mr. Gold appears for his morning promenade among the tables. Bits of thread cling to his pants. He wears his short-sleeved shirt buttoned to his neck and carries the yardstick that he rarely uses or puts down. He has a thick mustache, hairy arms, and a kind face with wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes. But you can never count on his mood. Maddalena once saw him charge up and down the aisles, slap each woman's table with the yardstick, and screech, "Wake up!" Then, not a minute later, he was speaking sweetly again. This explains the wrinkles on a man no older than forty.

"Good morning, my little ladies," he says.

"Good morning, Mr. Gold," they say in unison, keeping their heads down.

"Let's do eighty today, yes?" he says, and holds up a piece of paper with the numbers 8–0 written in black marker. "What do you think, Ida? Yesterday I asked for seventy and you did thirty-six."

"I'm trying," she says, a pin between her lips.

Maddalena will have no trouble with eighty. Unlike the English language, sewing has come easily to her, and often she must slow her pace so as not to shame Ida or Gloria.

"I'm telling all my ladies some news," Mr. Gold says.

Ida looks up.

"Keep working while I talk," he continues, "and if you don't understand me" — here he glances at Maddalena, who loses track when he speaks too quickly — "make sure someone explains it to you." He sighs and rubs his forehead. "The sad truth is that I must let go of five of you by the end of next week. Business is not so good. The five who produce the least I must lose. This does not make me happy, believe me, but it is what I am forced to do."

"But I need the money more than anyone!" Ida says. She pushes herself away from the table and looks at him. "I have two little girls at home. Some of these ladies have no children at all."

"I have babies in two countries!" Gloria says.

"Then do the work of two women," Mr. Gold tells her, as he moves to the next set of tables.

Maddalena has followed most of this. At lunch Ida fills her in on the details. They talk low, though the other Italian women — snobs from the North, who would like nothing more than to see Maddalena and Ida sent away — sit far across the other end of the room. "Mario will kill me if I lose another job," Ida says. She has been dismissed from four places before the Golden Hem. At the most recent dress shop, she set a bridal gown on fire after leaving the iron on it too long. "Mario and I make just enough as it is, and we have to pay back all that money from the restaurant."

"This is not fair to us," Maddalena says.

"Don't even pretend you're worried for yourself."

Maddalena shrugs. "One of the five doesn't have to be you," she says, folding a piece of wax paper into a square. She stuffs the paper in her purse to reuse and reaches for the extra piece of fruit that Mamma Nunzia, their mother-in-law, throws in "for health." Lunch was a few pieces of roasted chicken and spinach between thick slices of bread, eaten without an appetite.

"You have it easy," Ida says. "We have Nunzia and Nina to worry about. And whatever happens, Papà and Mamma will take care of Antonio. You think they would have given Mario the money to go find a wife in Italy? For the younger son, their pockets are always empty."

Maddalena listens, though she has heard this song from Ida many times before. She and Mario believe that Antonio, the oldest, is the family favorite. Nothing anyone says can change their minds. Mario has invested in one failed family business after another — the Pasticceria Grasso, the Grasso Grocery, Café Grasso — while Antonio has chosen the steady work of the assembly line at the Ford plant. Maddalena does not dare ask Ida why her husband should be punished for making the safer choice, especially since someone has clearly put a curse on the Grasso name.

For now they all live together in a narrow, three-story row house on Eighth Street, in the city of Wilmington, Delaware. The room on the other side of the wall from Maddalena and Antonio's bed belongs to Ida and Mario and their two little girls. Down the hall, out of earshot but never far from Maddalena's thoughts, sleep Mamma Nunzia and Papà Franco. Maddalena has no blood relations on this side of the ocean. For the first eighteen years of her life, she lived in the village of Santa Cecilia, in the mountains of central Italy, with three sisters and three brothers of her own, in a house no smaller than the one that waited for her here. Antonio appeared in Santa Cecilia after the war, started coming around and staying for dinner, sweet-talking. Her mother and sisters told her, "That man will take you to America, stuff your purse with money, and drive you around New York City in a Cadillac," and Maddalena believed them.

"Look in my purse," Ida says now, as Maddalena peels a pear. "Only one piece of fruit for me."

"Don't worry." She cuts the pear in quarters and hands one to her. "Between the two of us, we'll make two hundred. Easy."

Just to be sure, Maddalena works twice as fast. After Mr. Gold passes their tables, when Gloria and Stavroula aren't looking, she slides a pile of material over to Ida's side.

Precisely at three-thirty — the hands of the clock above in exact position — comes the third sign. A sudden cloudiness fills Maddalena's head, and before she can bring her hand to her brow a nausea unlike one she's ever felt bubbles in her stomach. The significance of the time of day strikes her, briefly, as she stands, lets fall the fabric on her lap, and rushes down the aisle to the ladies room. She makes it in time to vomit into the toilet, crouching so the greasy floor doesn't stain the knees of her stockings. When this happened to her as a child, her mother would kneel beside her, palm her forehead, and smooth her blonde curls around her ear. "Get all the poison out," she'd say; "this is your body cleaning itself." Now her mother sends advice in letters a month too late for it to matter. Now it is Gloria, wheezy and fat, who follows Maddalena into the bathroom and squeezes herself into the stall.

"Tutto bueno?" she asks. "You A-OK?" She flushes the toilet and hands her a wad of tissue.

Maddalena wipes her mouth and gets to her feet, keeping her head down. Her legs shake. She is too happy to look at Gloria. She has a new body now, possessed by something holy and powerful. The joyous transformation numbs her. She wants to keep it to herself for as long as she can. As soon as she reveals it — to Gloria, to Ida, even to Antonio — it will no longer belong to her.

But of course Gloria guesses. "You did not eat bad food, I can be sure. You are —" she places her hands over her belly, then brings them out slowly as if the belly is expanding.

Maddalena nods, then looks up. She has prayed for this moment long before the deer and the plastic daisies, and now, finally, it has come.

"How bella!" Gloria says, then bursts into a fit of Spanish that Maddalena cannot follow. She wears a thick coat of makeup on her brown skin, big gold earrings that jangle when her head bobs. She guides Maddalena toward the sink and pulls from her sleeve the photos of her two boys — Carlos and Eduardo — that she has already shown her a hundred times. "Morning sickness," she says, laughing. "With Carlos it's sickness all the day long." Then she wraps her arms around Maddalena and pulls her close.

She rests her head on Gloria's ample chest. The numbness breaks, and she sobs into her silky blouse, her strong, sweet perfume. Her hunger returns with great force. How she will finish out the day, the week, the next seven months at work, she does not know. Already she is impatient and longs for the baby to hold in her arms and present to Antonio. Already everything has changed.

Gloria strokes her hair. "How much did you sew today?" she asks.

"Sixty-five," Maddalena answers, though the real number is over eighty, not including what she's done for Ida.

"Then relax! Say your prayers. Give thanks to God."

She does. She works the needle slowly and devotes the extra time between stitches to things that, for superstitious reasons, she has not yet allowed herself to consider: the exact words she will use to tell Antonio, names for boys, names for girls, and — at this her hands fail her — the love of someone who belongs to her, someone of her own blood, in this country of strangers.


Excerpted from "The Saint of Lost Things"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Christopher Castellani.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I: GAMES OF 1953,
Also by Christopher Castellani,

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