Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

In 2020, the Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize with her proposal for Dandelions, a gorgeous, meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. The book has now been published in full, and it’s a thoroughly captivating read. Elegant, thoughtful and exquisitely written, Dandelions spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce (aka ‘Nonna’). This beautiful meditation touches on so many of my favourite themes – family stories, memory, identity, belonging, migration, displacement, loss, grief, language and regional culture – all set against the fascinating backdrop of a time of great sociopolitical change.

The book begins with one of Thea’s prevailing images of Nonna, picking dandelions to accompany the family’s dinner – bobbing and weaving “between the flowers’ perky heads, dotted like asterisks on a densely annotated page.” The setting is 1950s Manchester – home to Dirce, her husband Leo, their two children, Manlio and John, and Dirce’s mother, Novella. From this springboard, the book moves backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges.

The dandelion motif, which we see in these opening passages, recurs throughout the book as a metaphor for several aspects of the family’s story – from the way the seeds travel from one place to another, aided by the wind, to the plant’s ability to take root and grow pretty much anywhere, irrespective of circumstances. There’s also a sense of time passing through the generations, with each seed being a descendent of the ‘parent’ flower and the beginnings of the one to come. (The prose is superb throughout.)

Each seed, white and wandering, is a ghost of the flower that once was, and an apparition of the flower to come, looking for a place of rest. (p. 15)

The dandelion’s tenacious nature and its role in healing and medicine are significant too, adding further layers to the plant’s relevance as a title for the book.

Natalia Ginzburg’s novel-cum-memoir Family Lexicon is clearly a touchstone for Thea – a text in which well-worn tales and phrases become triggers for specific memories, passed through the generations entwined with identity.

Experience becomes language becomes story becomes identity… (p. 13)

Central to Dandelions are the various stories of migration (some successful, others less so) – many featuring Dirce, now ninety-five and living in Campagna, Italy. So, it’s rather appropriate that the name ‘Dirce’ has two roots: ‘cleft’ and ‘dual’, especially for a woman who feels she has lived two lives – one in Italy, the other in England.

We hear of Leo’s persistent and touching courtship of young Dirce, initially frowned upon by Novella, and the couple’s marriage and move from Italy to England in the early 1950s, mostly for its opportunities. Then there are Dirce’s jobs as a seamstress, which Thea captures as a series of trends, from ‘the quick-fire cushion-cover years’ to ‘the little-goes-a-long way hot pants years’.

Hardship is a vital part of the narrative, too – money is scarce, and Dirce’s health suffers due to overwork, poor diet and stress. A breakdown prompts a three-month recovery in Italy, but Dirce returns a new woman, ready to face the challenges ahead.

During their time in England, the family experiences the same things again and again: love, gaiety, acts of kindness, trust, superstition, hope, disappointment, homesickness, loss, hardship, prejudice, anxiety and fear. While the context and magnitude vary, the underlying emotions remain the same. And as Thea sets these stories alongside one another, we begin to see how they link together, forming a richly-textured portrait of family life.

In 1971, Leo, Dirce and their adopted daughter, Lucia, move back to Italy, prompted by Leo’s desire to build a house in his homeland in Campagna, much to Dirce’s initial reluctance. Nevertheless, there’s a lovely vignette here, a story of Leo returning to Dirce’s old house in Maniago to take cuttings from her father’s old grapevines – now wild but still strong. An intermingling of the families and generations duly results.

He [Leo] will plant these old vines among the new ones, alongside the roses and the dandelions, and, in time, create a blend that belongs to this family alone – the taste of two families, in fact, with all their stories combined – nurtured by the soil and the air he knows they have always belonged in, really. (p. 166)

Significant time is also devoted to Dirce’s parents, Angelo and Novella, and their move from the family’s home in Maniago Libero in Friuli, north-eastern Italy, to Manchester and Sheffield when Friuli’s steel industry died away. One of the things Dandelions captures so well is how the process of delving into her family’s past raises further crucial questions for Thea to consider.

When he [Angelo] took his young family to England in 1935, did he feel like things were opening up, getting better, or did he feel cornered, as if the choice to go were only an illusion? Did he tell his wife Novella that everything was going to be fine – you’ll see – and did he believe it himself? […] Did he feel in control of his own situation? (p. 81)

Moreover, given the political situation in Italy and the need for people to toe the line, Thea wonders whether Angelo harboured any fascist sympathies. There is no direct evidence to indicate so, and Dirce is careful to brush any suggestions aside. But if this were the case, would Thea still wish to tell his story and associate it so closely with her own? 

The book also touches on Dirce’s grief for the loss of her father, who died shortly after the move to England, prompting Novella’s return to Friuli with the remaining family. Dirce was nine when her father, Angelo, passed away in 1935 – a life-changing event that led to subsequent losses as her childhood and the chance of a proper education slipped away.

The one person Dirce is reluctant to discuss is her mother, Novella, whose legacy still casts a discernible shadow some forty years after her death.

In the story Nonna tells about her own life, Novella is less a person than the aftermath of a person, more atmosphere than flesh and blood. She is absence accumulated to form a presence. (p. 183)

Through little glimpses here and there, Novella emerges a woman who bore grievances and misfortunes very heavily, primed to see the worst in people and situations in place of virtues and light.

She wore calamities like rosettes and regularly presented them to her daughter one by one, each narrated with vivid feeling as though the events had just occurred. (pp. 191-192)

The story of Thea’s parents, and their move from England to Italy in the early ‘80s, is beautifully told. By comparison to those of the previous two generations, it’s a journey of relative ease, excitement and contentment – more optimistic and brighter in tone.

Thea also writes movingly of her own fractured sense of belonging, her dual citizenship and ‘hyphenated identity’ – not quite English enough to call herself English but not Italian enough for the opposite to apply either. Consequently, she ‘feels’ different in each country, which manifests itself in her everyday behaviour.

Emigration splits the individual, too. I am a different version of myself in Italy to the one I am in England. I’m not sure how discernible it is to others, but I feel it in my bones, in my skin, in the way I hold myself and speak to people. In Italy, I am quieter, more timid and awkward. (p. 94)

As Dandelions draws to a close, Thea comes to a realisation about her family and their stories – and perhaps, her reasons for embarking on this quest. It feels like a fitting place for me to finish my account of a book I absolutely adored. A beguiling combination of the personal and sociopolitical – and the stories we tell to live.

I thought, in short, that my dead needed me to remember them and tell their stories, to try to work out who they were and what challenges they faced. Really, it is I who needs them. (p. 281)

Dandelions is published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

32 thoughts on “Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

  1. Tredynas Days

    I think she used to co-present the TLS podcast with Stig Abell (ex-editor of the paper, now at Times Radio). She was very well read and engaging, and I’m not surprised you enjoyed this family account of hers.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think she works as a writer and editor at the TLS, so that would fit. I found this such a captivating read – no wonder she comes across so well on the podcasts!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Content-wise, yes, to a certain extent, especially with The Years. But Lenarduzzi’s prose style has a different ‘feel’ to Ernaux’s in Simple Passion or Happening. On the whole, I think Lenarduzzi’s prose is more poetic (and less detached / pared-back) than Ernaux’s, if that makes sense?. Plus, Lenarduzzi seems more inclined to go down rabbit holes from time in time (and I mean that in a very positive sense!). So, there are occasional vignettes about figures from Italian history or culture that resonate with certain aspects of her family’s story, beautifully woven into the text.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a striking image, isn’t it? Displaying misfortunes and tragedies like badges of honour, presenting each one to Dirce to strengthen its impact. It says so much about Novella’s character…

  2. MarinaSofia

    Can really relate to the different versions of the self, being not quite sufficient in some regards and too much in others! I have heard good things about this, and your review has confirmed that.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d find quite a lot in here that resonates with some of your own experiences of moving from one country to another. I couldn’t help but think of my own mother, who moved form Ireland to England in the 1960s when she married my father. She must have felt somewhat ‘lost’ or divided, especially at first…

  3. Julé Cunningham

    Such a beautiful review. I can see why you are so taken with this book – the way the author looks deeply and with clarity at her family and their history and how she uses language to convey that – truly impressive from the quotes you’ve picked. It sounds like a very special book indeed.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jule! It’s such a richly-textured book, full of different layers and resonances with various themes. (On the language front, Lenarduzzi also touches on the use of various regional dialects within Italy. So, the older members of the family (those hailing from Maniago) tend to speak in the Friulian dialect, which is quite different to Italian. A few speak in Venetian, which seems much closer to Italian, even though it’s something of a bridge between Friulian and the national language. A fascinating aside!)

  4. mallikabooks15

    I love that she’s captured both personal, family aspects and a broader social memoir in this one. I’ve been eyeing this on Edelweiss and I think I better go get that review copy🙂 loved reading your thoughts on this book.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, brilliant! I’m so glad to hear that this one appeals to you as it’s such a captivating and immersive read. I love a book that combines the personal and the sociopolitical in an interesting way, so it felt right up my street.

  5. Rob

    As a Mancunian with an Italy obsession, this looks right up my street! And the comparison with Ginzburg strengthens the recommendation. Looking forward to this, and thanks for such an informative review.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful! Lenarduzzi actually references Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon in the opening section, so it’s clearly of great importance to her. And your Mancunian heritage will add another layer of interest, for sure. (There are also some bits about Sheffield, where Dirce’s father Angelo found work when the Friulian steel industry dried up.) I really hope you enjoy reading it, whenever you get the chance.

  6. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Lovely review, as always. I’m very resistant to memoirs, mostly through ignorance (I once felt the same way about opera & short stories, I’m now a fan of both!) but this one may go on the list (I’m considering doing some serious memoir reading, to see if my prejudice holds).
    I did love the quotes and some of the images, such as dandelion seeds and those rosette/grudges are incredibly striking.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To be honest, I’ve only got into reading the occasional memoir myself in recent years, but something about this one really appealed to me – a combination of the themes and the focus on Italy, I think. Plus the quality of the writing, which really stood out.

      On the imagery front, she uses the dandelion motif so well, teasing out various qualities and associations that resonate with different elements of the family’s story. It’s remarkably effective yet very subtly done!

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, and this sounds like another brilliant addition to the Fitzcarraldo catalogue. They do seem to specialise in the kind of book which explores so many different issues, always coming back to memory and the way we process the past, but with so many different layers. I can see why it won the prize!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a great point! I couldn’t help but think of your review of Esther Kinsky’s latest as I was tidying up this post yesterday. Another book that explores life-changing experiences, the profound impact of loss, and the somewhat slippery nature of memory as we turn these things over in the mind. And there’s the Italian connection, too…

  8. heavenali

    What a lovely sounding collection. Firzcarraldo have been great for you recently. I like the sound of those personal reminiscences set against the background of the times, that really does help to bring the period to life. Those quotes are gorgeous too, beautifully written.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve done well with my Fitzcarraldo picks recently; they have such an interesting list, especially for non-fiction. I really like this type of memoir that combines the personal and the sociopolitical in an engaging way. Plus the connection to Natalia Ginzburg’s writing was another draw. (I think I’d seen a mention of it in the blurb/cover quotes!)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jane, and I’m glad you like the sound of it. The dandelion motif works so well to reflect various facets of the family’s story – both literally and figuratively!

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