Book Reviews

Book Review: In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle


In Calabria

By: Peter S. Beagle

Published: February 14, 2017

The Rundown: “Claudio Bianchi has lived alone for many years on a hillside in Southern Italy’s scenic Calabria.  Set in his ways and suspicious of outsiders, Claudio has always resisted change, preferring farming and writing poetry.  But one chilly morning, as though from a dream, an impossible visitor appears at the farm.  When Claudio comes to her aid, an act of kindness throws his world into chaos.  Suddenly he must stave off inquisitive onlookers, invasive media, and even more sinister influences.”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: The image on the cover is a famous medieval tapestry called “The Unicorn in Captivity.”  It shows a bearded unicorn living happily in an enclosed area.  Even though the unicorn is ostensibly captive, the fence is low enough that it can escape any time it wants.  In the tree next to the enclosure grow pomegranates, the ancient symbol of fertility.  This is fitting, as the unicorn in the novel, La Signora, is pregnant.  Tying the plot to a classical work of art is a prudent move, as it adds the novella a sense of gravitas.

What a Wonderful World: The story is set in a farm next to a village in Calabria, a province of southern Italy.  It’s supposed to be a village out of time: Claudio, the farmer, tends his farm using old equipment, only interacting with the man who comes to deliver his mail twice a week in a beat-down van.  Only in the second half of the novel is it apparent that the story is set in the present.  I did find it a little weird that the title of the book is In Calabria.  To put it in perspective, that would be like setting a novel in Phoenix and titling it In Maricopa County.  A lot of people romanticize (aka fetishize) the “simple life” of people in southern Italy.  As someone who spent a good deal of time there growing up, it is condescending and irritating.

The Good Guy: Claudio Bianchi is a grouchy fifty-something hermit who lives a simple albeit isolated life on his small farm.  He doesn’t want to get close to other people emotionally; the only person he even talks to is his postman, whom he pretends to hate.  Claudio prefers the company of his animals.  But there’s more to him to being grouchy: Claude writes poetry.  Everyone knows that writing poetry means that you are intelligent and sensitive.  Obviously. #Deep

The Bad Guy: When the media shows up at Claudio’s farm, this attracts that attention of the ‘Ndrangheta, a Mafia-like organization.  Led by a cigar-smoking man only known as The Monster, the ‘Ndrangheta wants to buy Claudio’s farm so they can have a unicorn for themselves.  Why an organized crime syndicate wants a unicorn, or is so fanciful to believe that unicorns are real, is never explained.  The ‘Ndrangheta are third-act villains, showing up only at the end to make the story seem more “action-packed” than it actually is.

The Guy in the Good Guy’s Bed: When the postman’s sister, Giovanna, takes over his route, she discovers the unicorns living on Claudio’s property.  The shared secret kindles a romance between the two.  It is not creepy that Giovanna is literally half Claudio’s age; not creepy at all.  It is she who instigates the relationship, you see.  Claudio tries to warn her away, but she just wants to be a part of his life.  And she’s tough—she beats up mobsters with a tire iron—so really, she’s feminist.  This isn’t just a male fantasy.

Unicorn Babies: This novella did a great job of playing with the idea Western culture has about unicorns.  Traditionally, they’re symbols of love and innocence; for example, in some stories, they can only be approached by virgins.  Beagle keeps the traditional notion of unicorns as symbols of purity, but also makes them something beyond human comprehension.  When Claudio tries to ride La Signora, the story turns almost Lovecraftian.

Unicorn Miscarriages: The entire second half of the book is superfluous.  When it’s just Claudio, and the way that the unicorns affect his mental state, it’s great.  Then there’s this stupid plot about the media finding out, and helicopters flying over his farm, and it’s something that we’ve seen a million times before.  Then the Mob gets involved, and they want the unicorn, and Claudio has to fight them off.  It’s clichéd and stupid.  The only reason I can think that Beagle wrote that part was to make the story novel-length, so that he could make more money off of it.

Does it Represent…

Women: There are three female characters in In Calabria.  There’s Giovanna, Claudio’s love interest, here to help him rediscover what it is to love.  There’s Giovanna’s roommate, who drives Giovanna to Claudio’s farm so that they can share romantic dinners.  Then there’s the town psychic, whom Claudio goes to for advice.  She’s a fraud, and exists as comic relief.  Yeah, this story isn’t great when it comes to women.

People of Color: Nope.

LGBT People: Nada.

The Disabled: Zip.

Does the Unicorn Survive?: Yup!

Memorable Quote: “When the wind changes, and you smell the moon and dance over the hills and far away, the only heart broken around here will be the goat’s.  I want you to understand that—you are a miracle, yes, truly—the one miracle of my life—but miracles do not break the heart.  Foolish, ridiculous things do that, songs do that, smells do that, everyday stupidities do that…”

Recommended For: People who like unicorns, I guess.

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.


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