Reviewed by Patricia O’Sullivan.
Italians Alberto Landi and his wife, Nina, love to travel, and their favorite destination is Savannah, Georgia. In fact, they go there so often that they are made honorary citizens by Savannah’s mayor. When Nina dies, Alberto can no longer live in Italy because the memories of her are too painful. So he moves to Burnside Island, just south of Savannah, where the soothing regularity of the tide begins to heal him.
Alberto muses on the tides: “And it all happens in a moment, so there is just a little time to enter the house, pour another cup of coffee and return to note that your last glance has already become another sight. Within minutes, the tide invaded every corner caressing with placid threats and the lawn behind the house, ripping the boats attached to the piers off the sticky mud and almost giving the subliminal message that if it wanted to, it could overwhelm and submerge the whole house and us along with it. She reminds you: remember who’s in charge here.”
Whispering Tides is a difficult book to pigeon-hole. It is advertised as a “touching, funny and memorable tale set in Savannah.” Even Mattioni himself makes no claim as to how he would characterize it. His readers’ note reads,
Some of the characters in this book are totally invented, some are somewhat real and the rest are in fact totally real, even if I have used pseudonyms for all of them in order to protect their privacy. However, I swear, all of them are really deep in my heart as is the city of Savannah itself.
Though it is partly, perhaps mostly, fiction, Whispering Tides is not quite a novel because, I think, very little actually happens in it. Despite its elements of non-fiction, perhaps even autobiography, it is not a memoir. So how can one describe it in a way that would clarify its rhetorical purpose?
One possibility is to say that Whispering Tides is a travel guide to some of the best sights and local restaurants in the Savannah area. It conveys philosophical reflections on friendship and human nature. Mattioni often delves into animal nature as well, reflecting in long passages on the behavior of birds and cats.
Sometimes Whispering Tides recounts Georgia’s history, and sometimes it waxes poetic about Georgia’s geography. Many passages qualify as character studies occasionally accompanied by a psychological analysis of the subject. Most of all, though, Whispering Tides is a love letter to Savannah and the nearby islands.
The “conventional” reader in me wanted to know more about Nina and how she died. Her death was presented as tragic and sudden, the kind of hook that is irresistible. Mattioni, however, kept the narrative focused on Alberto’s present with only occasional, albeit compelling, lapses into the past. The novelist in me envied Mattioni’s dream-like prose and his lyrical descriptions of Savannah and the Georgian Islands. Take, for instance, this passage:
The water that is usually glass calm began to vibrate, as if gently simmering and then it was covered with concentric circles until finally shining tender creatures came to the surface. The air was filled with faint cries and happy sounds resembling the joyful laughter of children. They were baby dolphins that had just been born. That bay, chosen by the ancient wisdom of their mothers, is the nursery and natural sanctuary where those young sweet mammals chase each other around, learn to take their first dives and emerge between splashes looking at you confidently with their soft eyes.
The New Englander in me rankled against Georgians’ disparaging diatribes against the manners, money, and shallowness of Yankees. Alberto did not offer a different perspective on northerners, and one wonders whether he, or at least his fictional persona, feels the same way. I myself was curious if he realized how people who live on islands, hundreds of miles apart from each other, often have more in common with each other than the closest mainlanders, but that is neither here nor there.
Everyone Alberto meets in Georgia is charming and welcoming, despite that he is an Italian stranger. He is, or appears to be, then, an acceptable exception to their relative isolation. Unlike Yankee visitors to Savannah, Alberto is not the stock-type, out-of-touch interloper clamoring to buy waterfront property as a weekend escape from urban existence.
Notwithstanding the over-generalized characterization of northern life and northern people, readers, even Northern ones like me, might find themselves smiling as they recognize—as they surely will— characters in Whispering Tides from their own formative experiences living in the Deep South: the small town mayor dedicated to preserving the quaint and isolated character of his town; the townie everyone knows because he spends his days hanging around the diners and bars talking to folks, but who no one really knows because he’s never given out his phone number (not even to his girlfriends); and the deep and infectious laughter of women who’ve spent their lives earning minimum wage working at the local supermarket. Mattioni describes these latter characters as a “small army of women in chintzy overalls or acrylic stretch-pants suits…vestals of discounts, the great deal priestesses of ‘3 for $2.00’, but above all friendly companions ready to assist their neighbors, regardless of who those neighbors are.”
It is always interesting, even edifying, to read an immigrant’s perspective on American—and Southern—life. What is special about Whispering Tides is how it concerns a small slice of the American experience and delves deeply into it. To get the most out of this book, read it on your back porch in view of the water with a glass of wine at your side. Just trust me on that one.
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