The Islands of Divine Music – Book Review

islandsofdivinemusic Although Janine understood almost none of the language, the expressions and gestures of the people at the table were so familiar that she felt she’d already heard this entire conversation and understood it perfectly, sitting among her aunts and uncles in her grandmother’s house many nights near the San Francisco Bay. – from The Islands of Divine Music, page 190 –

John Addiego’s debut novel – The Islands of Divine Music – is a multi-generational novel in short stories about the Verbicaro family. The book spans more than 100 years and is told from the multiple viewpoints of five generations of Italian-Americans, beginning with the voice of matriarch Rosari  as she leaves Southern Italy bound for the United States. Although each individual must move through their life with their own problems, challenges, and unique perspectives…they are all bound together by family and the divine. A member of my book group referred to them as “islands within the chain of an archipelago” which seems to describe the structure of this novel well.

The Islands of Divine Music is not an easy book to read and understand. Addiego uses magical realism to bring forth his themes of isolation, faith and love of family. All the characters are seriously flawed – some becoming embroiled in the mafia, others turning towards prostitution, and some slipping into the stranglehold of drug addiction. They fight demons such as social alienation, violence, and infidelity. All of this occurs against the backdrop of 20th century American history: Immigration, Prohibition, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights. It is a large platter of rich subject matter – and at times it seems almost too weighty for a novel of just under 250 pages.

Addiego is a skillful writer and there were some passages that were so beautifully written I began marking them:

Eleonora stood on deck with her head uncovered, her face radiant, and the sky fell as white jewels onto her black hair. She lifted Rosari’s hand, and they dance slowly through the snow, a substance Rosari had never seen before, a phenomenon which seemed to her then the flight of a million angels come to guide her mother and herself to a new life. – from The Islands of Divine Music, page 14 –

Through the glass their eyes met, and Penny’s heart jumped, and as the pneumatic door snapped shut and the car lurched forward she mouthed his name, and he nodded. Both of them opened their mouths and pointed as the train swiftly drew them apart, the one who had stood on the Golden Gate Bridge an hour earlier and decided against death by the direction of a bird’s flight and the other who’d returned in thought to that hidden mesa at the end of the world where a mother and child huddled under a blue poncho and waited for the shadow of death to pass over. – from The Islands of Divine Music, page 129 –

Despite these exquisite passages, the novel also was quite graphic in its descriptions of violence – especially one scene which describes the sexual assault of one of the female characters. There were moments in the book where I felt Addiego could have been less graphic and still made his points.

One of the flaws of the novel was the vast numbers of characters which flow in and out of the narrative. Luckily for the reader, Addiego provides a genealogical chart at the beginning which I found myself referring to many times just to keep everyone straight. This novel often felt like a collection of short stories (and indeed, many of the chapters were previously published as short stories). I found myself frustrated at times that just as I was starting to get to know one character, I was introduced to another. The second half of the book felt better connected to me than the first part.

I have a negative bias toward novels entrenched in magical realism, so it is to Addiego’s credit that I found myself slipping into the world of the Verbicaro family and wanting to know more about them.  The language of this novel is raw and occasionally graphic; often the characters are gritty and unlikable. Although I think Addiego is a talented writer, the book was not really my cup of tea. But for readers who love magical realism and who like a novel which is unique, The Islands of Divine Music might be just what you are looking for…


The cover art on this book is wonderful. The artist is Paul Zwolak and you can find more of his amazing work here and here.

See what other readers thought:

Amy at My Friend Amy
Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books
Stacy at Book: Thirty
Teddy at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Kathy at BermudiaOnion’s Blog
Heather at Book Addiction
Julie at Booking Mama
Anna at Diary of an Eccentric
The Novel World

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    • Kathy on March 2, 2009 at 14:09

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt like it was a book of short stories. You pretty much summed up my feelings in your review.

  1. I heard about this book from Diary of an Eccentric. It sounds like a good book. thanks for another great review.

    • Wendy on March 2, 2009 at 15:43

    Kathy: *nods* I read your review and felt like we were “on the same page.”

    Serena: If you enjoy Magical Realism, I think you’d like it.

    • laura on March 2, 2009 at 17:06

    Hmmm … I think I can take a pass on this one!

  2. This is a good review, Wendy. I remember liking some of the stories more than others and thinking it was well written, even though I didn’t necessarily connect with the book.

  3. I tried to read this one, and just couldn’t. I’m not sure what it was, but it wasn’t grabbing me, and I found myself “making” myself read. Too many books on my to-read stack to do that!

  4. I don’t know if I would like the book, but I really like the cover!

  5. Hm, I too tend to have a bias against magical realism in novels, so I don’t know if this would be one to add to the list. I agree, though: pretty cover!

    • Jo on March 3, 2009 at 13:52

    I think it sounds interesting. Not sure what I’d think about it but different enoughto be worth trying.

  6. I’m not sure about this one, but your review was great!

    • Nicole on March 3, 2009 at 14:29

    I thought the writing was beautiful as well, but I just couldn’t find my way through the number of characters. There were just way too many narratives.

    • Dawn on March 3, 2009 at 14:44

    Wendy, this is a very well-written review! I like that you explained *why* you didn’t connect with the book. Pretty early on in my reading of the book I decided to approach it as linked short stories (rather than a novel), which helped segment all the characters … that genealogical chart helped, too! 🙂

    • Lynda on March 5, 2009 at 06:43

    I like the sound of this book – I’ll be looking out for it. Thanks for the review.
    Another blog award for you here:

    • Anna on March 6, 2009 at 06:46

    I had no idea it was going to involve magical realism. I read it because I love family sagas. I thought the characters were compelling, and actually liked how they seemed to be connected short stories. Thanks for linking to my review. I added your link to mine.

    • Jenny on March 6, 2009 at 20:46

    I’ve seen this around before – I love the title but I can’t stand multigenerational magical realism books. And there’s still part of me that wants to read it because I like the title so much.

    • Wendy on March 7, 2009 at 11:03

    Laura: Given that we almost always agree on books, I don’t think you’d like this one!

    Thanks Amy!

    Carrie: *nodding* It is not a book for everyone. I finished it because I was reading it for a book club and also it was sent to me by the publisher, so I wanted to give it a fair shot.

    Kailana: The cover *is* gorgeous!

    Priscilla: If you don’t like magical realism, you probably won’t like this one…

    Jo: Many readers really enjoyed this book…

    S. Krishna: Thanks!

    Nicole: I agree – it was tough in that way.

    Dawn: Thanks so much! I really try to be fair when I review – even when a book doesn’t connect with me, I try to point out its merits and who it might appeal to…glad that worked here 🙂

    Lynda: Aw thank you so much!

    Anna: I know a lot of people felt as you did!

    Jenny: *laughs* I know what you mean – I took a bit of a risk with this one for the same reason!

    • Teddy on March 7, 2009 at 22:24

    Wonderful review Wendy! As usual, we are in agreement on this book.

    • Wendy on March 9, 2009 at 07:16

    LOL, Teddy – we *do* usually agree, don’t we?

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