(Last in the "Big Stone Gap" quartet.)
Nestled in the lush Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the town of Big Stone Gap has been home for Ave Maria Mulligan Machesney and her family for generations. She’s been married to her beloved Jack for nearly twenty years, raised one child and buried another, and run a business that binds her community together, all while holding her tight circle of family and friends close.
But with her daughter, Etta, having flown the nest to enchanting Italy, Ave Maria has reached a turning point. When a friend’s postcard arrives with the message “It’s time to live your life for you,” Ave Maria realizes that it’s time to go in search of brand-new dreams. But before she can put her foot on the path, her life is turned upside down.
Ave Maria agrees to helm the town musical, a hilarious reunion of local talent past and present. A lifelong friendship collapses when a mysterious stranger comes to town and reveals a long-buried secret. An unexpected health crisis threatens her family. An old heartthrob reappears, challenging her marriage and offering a way out of her troubles. An opportunistic coal company comes to town and threatens to undermine the town’s way of life and the mountain landscape Ave Maria has treasured since she was a girl. Now she has no choice but to reinvent her world, her life, and herself, whether she wants to or not.
Trigiani is at her best in this exquisite page-turner. Home to Big Stone Gap is an emotional and unforgettable journey that reminds us that you can go home again and again. (From the publisher.)
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About the Author
• Where—Big Stone Gap, Virginia, USA
• Education—B.A., St. Mary’s College, Indiana, USA
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
As her squadrons of fans already know, Adriana Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, a coal-mining town in southwest Virginia that became the setting for her first three novels. The "Big Stone Gap" books feature Southern storytelling with a twist: a heroine of Italian descent, like Trigiani, who attended St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, like Trigiani. But the series isn't autobiographical—the narrator, Ave Maria Mulligan, is a generation older than Trigiani and, as the first book opens, has settled into small-town spinsterhood as the local pharmacist.
The author, by contrast, has lived most of her adult life in New York City. After graduating from college with a theater degree, she moved to the city and began writing and directing plays (her day jobs included cook, nanny, house cleaner and office temp). In 1988, she was tapped to write for the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, and spent the following decade working in television and film. When she presented her friend and agent Suzanne Gluck with a screenplay about Big Stone Gap, Gluck suggested she turn it into a novel.
The result was an instant bestseller that won praise from fellow writers along with kudos from celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg is a fan). It was followed by Big Cherry Holler and Milk Glass Moon, which chronicle the further adventures of Ave Maria through marriage and motherhood. People magazine called them "Delightfully quirky... chock full of engaging, oddball characters and unexpected plot twists."
Critics sometimes reach for food imagery to describe Trigiani's books, which have been called "mouthwatering as fried chicken and biscuits" (USA Today) and "comforting as a mug of tea on a rainy Sunday" (New York Times Book Review). Food and cooking play a big role in the lives of Trigiani's heroines and their families: Lucia, Lucia, about a seamstress in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, and The Queen of the Big Time, set in an Italian-American community in Pennsylvania, both feature recipes from Trigiani's grandmothers. She and her sisters have even co-written a cookbook called, appropriately enough, Cooking With My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes, from Bari to Big Stone Gap. It's peppered with anecdotes, photos and family history. What it doesn't have: low-carb recipes. "An Italian girl can only go so long without pasta," Trigiani quipped in an interview on GoTriCities.com.
Her heroines are also ardent readers, so it comes as no surprise that book groups love Adriana Trigiani. And she loves them right back. She's chatted with scores of them on the phone, and her Web site includes photos of women gathered together in living rooms and restaurants across the country, waving Italian flags and copies of Lucia, Lucia.
Trigiani, a disciplined writer whose schedule for writing her first novel included stints from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning, is determined not to disappoint her fans. So far, she's produced a new novel each year since the publication of Big Stone Gap.
I don't take any of it for granted, not for one second, because I know how hard this is to catch with your public," she said in an interview with The Independent. "I don't look at my public as a group; I look at them like individuals, so if a reader writes and says, 'I don't like this,' or, 'This bit stinks,' I take it to heart.
From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview:
• I appeared on the game show Kiddie Kollege on WCYB-TV in Bristol, Virginia, when I was in the third grade. I missed every question. It was humiliating.
• I have held the following jobs: office temp, ticket seller in movie theatre, cook in restaurant, nanny, and phone installer at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. In the writing world, I have been a playwright, television writer/producer, documentary writer/director, and now novelist.
• I love rhinestones, faux jewelry. I bought a pair of pearl studded clip on earrings from a blanket on the street when I first moved to New York for a dollar. They turned out to be a pair designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Now, they are costume, but they are still Schiaps! Always shop in the street—treasures aplenty.
• When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is what she said:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. When I was a girl growing up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, I was in the middle of a large Italian family, but I related to the lonely orphan girl Jane, who with calm and focus, put one foot in front of the other to make a life for herself after the death of her parents and her terrible tenure with her mean relatives. She survived the horrors of the orphanage Lowood, losing her best friend to consumption, became a teacher and then a nanny. The love story with the complicated Rochester was interesting to me, but what moved me the most was Jane's character, in particular her sterling moral code. Here was a girl who had no reason to do the right thing, she was born poor and had no connections and yet, somehow she was instinctively good and decent. It's a story of personal triumph and the beauty of human strength. I also find the book a total page turner- and it's one of those stories that you become engrossed in, unable to put it down. Imagine the beauty of the line: "I loved and was loved." It doesn't get any better than that!
(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
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Critics Say . . .
The delightful Blue Ridge Mountain town of Big Stone Gap, Va., once again comes to life through the voice of Ave Maria MacChesney in Trigiani's fourth entry in the series. Ave has just returned from an emotional trip to daughter Etta's wedding in Italy with her husband, Jack. As Ave learns to juggle empty-nest freedoms with the ache of loss, Jack's sudden health problems send Ave into a quiet panic. She struggles to be supportive while imagining the worst. Her fears allayed, she ends up directing the town's annual winter musical, a production of The Sound of Music that would send the Von Trapp family heading for the hills. Adding to the mix, Ave's close buddy, Iva Lou, becomes distant when a long-held secret surfaces, threatening their friendship. Thankfully, Theodore Tipton, the town "rock star," returns from New York City for a holiday visit. Memorable characters and smalltown magic (including recipes) continue to have appeal, but unwanted pregnancies, mountain strip-mining, the rearing up of old griefs and a trip to Scotland (given short shrift) have a kitchen-sink feel.
Trigiani continues the saga of the folks of Big Stone Gap, with Ave Maria Mulligan MacChesney facing a number of life-changing moments while directing a Blue Ridge Mountain stage version of The Sound of Music. Blended into the usual mix of appreciative descriptions and comparisons of Virginia and Italy are the Scottish Highlands, as lifelong dreams are realized. This is a novel that could conclude the series, given its much more reflective tone. Well read by Cassandra Campbell, the book draws on the comfort of old friends, family recipes, and familiar scenarios that offer new challenges and promises. Recommended.
Trigiani revisits the sleepy Virginia hamlet of Big Stone Gap. The author of the "Big Stone Gap" trilogy (Milk Glass Moon, 2002, etc.) rejoins her small-town characters as Ave Marie and her husband, Jack MacChesney, head home after attending the wedding of their daughter Etta in Italy. The story focuses on Ave Marie as she tackles the ennui of being an empty-nester. Upon her return, Ave Maria resumes her work at the pharmacy and catches up with friends, but she feels a void and soon volunteers to direct the local musical production. There's plenty of drama waiting for Ave Maria outside the theater doors. First, Jack is stricken with an illness that threatens to widow Ave Maria, and then, Ave Maria has a falling out with her best pal, Iva Lou, over a mysterious stranger who pops up on Thanksgiving Day. Throughout, this can all be a drag: Ave Maria is self-absorbed. The world seems to revolve around her whims and worries. It's a wonder how she has so many men swooning over her. Her meddling can be a source of amusement, but her stubbornness is grating. When it comes to these characters, Trigiani lets no thought go unmentioned and no inane detail missed. The glorious setting and the disarmingly frank supporting characters save this work from being nothing but mediocre dross. Cloyingly sweet tale about life and loss in a small country town.
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Book Club Discussion Questions
1. In one of the early scenes in HOME TO BIG STONE GAP, Ave Maria’s friend Theodore Tipton sends her a postcard that states, “Start living your life for you.” By the end of the novel, has Ave Maria taken this advice?
2. When the prospect of using mountaintop removal as an alternative form of coal mining is raised to Ave Maria and her husband, Jack, Ave Maria is instantly against the idea. Do you think she has considered both sides? What exactly is at stake in her argument with Jack about this issue?
3. Why does Trigiani include the character of Randy in her novel? What is the significance of the similarities between Randy and Joe, as well as between Randy’s mother and Ave Maria? What does Ave Maria learn from Randy?
4. Do you think it’s fair for Ave Maria to confront Iva Lou about her mysterious past? What lasting effects does this experience have on Ave Maria and Iva’s relationship? What would you do in the same situation?
5. According to Ave Maria’s experience, a woman’s method of coping is to “make things pretty when the road gets rocky,” while Jack “wants facts, answers, and drop-dead ultimatums.” Do you generally agree with her assessment of her husband? How do men and women deal with crises differently?
6. Reflecting upon Etta’s move to Italy, Ave Maria says, “Maybe fate is the footwork of decisions made with loving intentions.” Do you think this is true? What examples from the book support this claim? What examples challenge it?
7. How does the trip to Scotland affect Ave Maria’s relationships with Etta and Jack? Do you feel that any transformations have occurred?
8. Bridges, both literal and figurative, are an important symbol throughout the novel. Why is one of Jack’s goals to build a bridge? What sorts of bridges are constructed—and dismantled—throughout the course of the novel? Finally, how do you interpret Ave Maria’s statement that “Jack needed to build it, if only to know the deep river that runs through Cracker’s Neck Holler”?
9. Perhaps more so than any of the other novels in this series, Home to Big Stone Gap grapples with the theme of loss. One of Ave Maria’s major challenges throughout the book is learning how to let go and come to terms with moving on. In what ways has she accomplished this by the end of the novel? In what ways is she still hanging on? How do Ave Maria’s experiences compare with your own?
(Questions issued by Random House.)
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