Sewickley author Tessaro seeks to connect past, present challenges
Kathleen Tessaro left her home in Aspinwall in 1987 to pursue an acting career in London. Instead, she became a writer, the British lexicon and its range of accents leaving an indelible mark on her work.
“The 24 years I spent in London I associate tremendously with language,” says Tessaro, who now lives in Sewickley and has just released “Rare Objects” (Harper, $25.99), her sixth novel. “I went there as a young actress and all my interests had to do with language. The English use language in a particular way and the sort of ‘Pygmalion' example of (George) Bernard Shaw of how language betrays your education, your social class, your sensibilities, is as utterly true as it ever was.”
“Rare Objects” is a richly realized novel set at the apex of the Depression. Maeve Fanning is a young woman beset by problems, including her lack of employment. Formerly a “taxi dancer” at a club in New York City where “every misfit in the city is your sweetheart for the next three minutes,” Maeve is remitted to a psychiatric hospital when she tries to commit suicide after being beaten by a client from whom she stole a pocket watch. Eventually, Maeve returns home to Boston to live with her mother and bluffs her way into a job at an antiques shop.
While ostensibly a historical novel, Tessaro's ultimate goal is to make her work relevant, even as themes emerge organically. In “Rare Objects,” the plight of Irish and Italian immigrants mirrors present day global immigration situations.
“One of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction now is I'm looking to connect the dots between the challenges that we're facing in our current situation with the way people have handled similar challenges in the past,” she says.
“For example, the book is set in the middle of the Depression, and we underwent a huge worldwide recession in 2008 that we've never completely come out. The people in the book are facing a lot of the same circumstances that we are facing now.”
In the 1930s, the Irish and Italians were often deemed second-class citizens by the Brahmins, the elite ruling class made up of mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They were considered the elite of Boston. One of the subplots of “Rare Objects” involves a young woman whose wealthy family aspires to have the same influence and standing.
“I chose Boston specifically because of its very, very defined social structure,” Tessaro says. “To me, that mimics a very useful, tension-filled dynamic I was used to when I was writing about English characters. But, during the early 1930s, you have these waves of immigrants who are coming in, and every character in the book is dealing with the fact that they came from somewhere else and what it means to be an American. Who is American enough?”
Tessaro did vast amounts of research for “Rare Objects,” a lot of it never used, but important as background. She took great care to accurately render the sights, sounds and even the aromas of Boston in the early 1930s. A depiction of an Italian bakery and its sfogliatelle, cassata siciliana, panmarino and zaletti is especially mouth-watering.
The author admits these passages are necessary, but often painstaking.
“I would prefer to just do dialogue, so any descriptive passages are pretty labored for me in terms of having to concentrate,” Tessaro says. “I did another book, ‘The Perfume Collector,' which included these really long descriptions of various perfumes and smells. I had to learn a whole new descriptive language in order to write those passages. ... I would be lying if I said it was easy. All descriptive passages tend to be hard work for me.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.