Two weeks ago, Justine van der Leun, author of Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love, wrote an amazing guest post for GFS about the life lessons she learned from eating locally in Italy. Today, I’m happy to share my review of Justine’s book which is rich with stories about food, farming, and Italian traditions.
The story begins in New York where Justine, in her mid-twenties, is struggling to find her place. She’s got the magazine job she always wanted, and a boyfriend who seems perfect on paper, but she yearns for something different, mainly because she understands that she is different. Enter a handsome Italian gardener she meets on vacation in Umbria and boom, Justine packs up her Brooklyn apartment and moves to the 200-person farming village of Collelungo. The bloom is quickly off the rose with the gardener, but Justine becomes deeply enmeshed with his family. Justine also finds a neglected, nameless English pointer living alone in an outdoor pen.
Initially believing the dog is male, she gives it the very British name of Marcus, only to find that she’s a lady. Justine keeps the name and takes on the dog which is sick with worms, eye infections and is terrified of most everyone. Unfortunately, Justine—who is already considered an outsider—officially becomes the town kook for bringing a hunting dog, something the locals feel should be kept outdoors, into her home and heart. Marcus increasingly by her side, Justine learns about companionship, admiration, respect, and in the end, a mixture of love and fate helps her decide to take Marcus back home to the United States.
The first thing I loved about Marcus of Umbria is that in no way does it over-romanticize Italy. I’m utterly sick of authors who extol the charms of Italy in manner that reeks of British 19th-century travelers. Maybe there was still a place for that drippy stuff before the EU, maybe even before the Italians voted Berlusconi in twice, but certainly the schmaltz about sunflowers and gelato is no longer acceptable.
Justine accurately describes all of Italy’s geographic, culinary, and cultural virtues without ever resorting to stereotypes. She also provides a wonderful window into the nature of Italians via her descriptions of daily life with the Cruciani family and people in Collelungo. They are both warm and loving in their unquestioning acceptance of their lives and each other, as well as hard and resistant to even beneficial change.
Readers interested in farming and rural life will find much to learn and enjoy. Justine describes truffle hunting, foraging, the birth and slaughter of lambs, and the great family feasts held after the slaughter of a pig. In one of my favorite scenes about olive oil production she writes:
“For a while, it was difficult for me to enjoy olive oil in any amount, so aware was I finally of the excessive effort that went into making just a teaspoonful—and of how I had not made any of that effort. But that wasn’t how the Collelungese treated the stuff—they poured it everywhere and ate it all up, and they poured it on my food, too, and soon, again, so did I.”
I suppose I’m a little biased about this book since I too took off for Italy in my mid-twenties, love food, dogs, and oh….happen to know Justine and think she’s pretty darned great. That said, Marcus of Umbria is a smart, funny well-told story that is guaranteed to please. And we here at GFS keep finding that we are part of the zeitgeist so take our advice and discover this new author now, as her star is certainly on the rise.