A Marriage Redeemed
I started out to write a review of Roland Merullo’s masterful and thoroughly enjoyable new novel, aptly named “The Delight of Being Ordinary – a Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama”. I read it as my family book club’s latest selection and we had an engaging discussion about it just a few days ago. I should also note that this was the third of Merullo’s novels that our book club read and discussed in the past year.
Reading over most of the reviews currently online, I decided to focus on one subplot that particularly engaged me. For anyone looking for a traditional review of the book as a whole, I suggest one in the Kirkus Review:
… and another one, the first “Customer Review” by Kit Marlowe embedded in Amazon.com’s page for the book:
Besides Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, the other two characters in the car on the 5-day Italian road-trip are Paolo and Rosa. They are still legally married though they haven’t lived together for about many years. Paolo is a younger cousin of the Pope who works as a personal assistant for the Pontiff in the Vatican. The two were playmates as boys and the Pope insisted on hiring Paolo to his current position, knowing that his relative had been unemployed since his travel business went under. Rosa is a fiery Neopolitana who started her own hairstyling business after their separation. Unlike her husband, Rosa’s business has prospered beyond her wildest dreams with her salons spreading all over Italy. Rosa is everything her husband is not – good-looking, aggressive, flamboyant, always looking for fun and adventure. One reviewer has aptly compared her to the actress Sophia Loren.
The backstory is that the Argentine Jesuit Cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio, regularly visited Paolo and Rosa in Rome during his frequent visits to the Vatican on church business. The future Pope was fond of them both and their beloved only child, Ana Lisa (now a young teacher living in the Adriatic coast city of Rimini.)
Rosa met Paolo while she was still a university student in Rome. She walked into his travel agency one afternoon and they struck up a conversation that led to a date and a passionate courtship. She dropped out of university to marry Paolo, falling for his suave, cosmopolitan, sometimes cynical demeanor but mostly for the fact that he appreciated her for more than her fantastic good looks. Their daughter was a love child who both her parents continued to care for deeply.
The reasons for the couple’s falling out with one another becomes readily apparent as the unlikely four-some make their getaway from the Vatican’s considerable security apparatus. Paolo was extremely reluctant to accept the Pope’s insistence that he find a way for him and his new friend, the visiting Dalai Lama, to abscond from the pomp of the Vatican for a few days. Overwhelmed by his task, he calls Rosa to solicit her help. Rosa immediately jumps at the challenge and the opportunity for fun and adventure. She masterminds their escape in a friend’s Maserati after having her expert stylist and dresser concoct hilarious yet believable disguises for the Pontiff, the Tibetan holy man, and for Paolo.
The tension in the car between Paolo and Rosa leaks out at first, but soon becomes an ongoing back-and-forth of sarcastic one-upmanship. Rosa insists on driving the Maserati and Paolo chafes at her aggressive, erratic driving. She brazenly tells the Pope that she and her daughter are no longer practicing Catholics and grills the Pontiff on what exactly being a Catholic means.
Rosa swung her eyes to me, once, quickly, then back to the road. “What?’ she hissed. “What, Paolo? You’re giving me one of your looks.”
I tried to hold the words in my mouth, but they pushed their way out, little puffs of old trouble singeing my lips as they escaped. “You’re being borderline irreverent,” I said quietly. “This is the Pope you’re speaking to about your problem with the Church!”
“Who else should I speak to about it?” she said, beneath the noise of the engine. “You? Even now that he’s Pope, he likes to be treated like an ordinary human being, can’t you see that?”
“I think I know him a little better than you do.”
“You think you know everything a little better than I do.”
This underlying marital tension persists through most of the five days of the novel, abating somewhat after Rosa allows Paolo to take the wheel of the car. There are also some sweet moments between them when they stop in Rimini, at the Pope’s suggestion, to visit their daughter. Ana Lisa is a vibrant, attractive young woman who looks forward to seeing her parents despite the alarming news she’s been hearing of the Pope’s assumed abduction by his personal assistant – her Dad. The disguised travelers have also heard these reports on the car radio, driving Paolo to near panic for his own implication. They meet Ana Lisa on the beach at Rimini to avoid possible surveillance at her apartment.
Ana Lisa is excited at meeting the disguised dignitaries. Though no longer a practicing Catholic, she has a deep interest in all things spiritual, especially Buddhism. She takes the whole party to a meditation and dharma-talk that her boyfriend Piero is giving nearby. The Pope, Dalai Lama and Rosa are all at ease sitting in silence with the meditators. But Paolo fidgets and squirms throughout, offended by his daughter’s observation that he’s never been one to sit still.
At one point, Paolo shares directly with the reader about his wife:
I admired Rosa’s business sense, her work ethic, her unfailing optimism in the face of life’s many difficulties. She’d been an absolutely spectacular mother – present, attentive, affectionate, supportive. A loving partner in the bedroom. A friend. I thought she was beautiful, still; that she’d always been beautiful. But almost from the hour we’d met, there had been places in which our personalities ground against each other like gears in a ruined transmission. Fighting had become as regular as lovemaking, and then more regular. In time, like some kind of cancer, it took over so many cells of our relationship that when Ana Lisa was out of the house and we were left alone with each other, the tension became unbearable. To my last breath I will remember the night we sat down and, after talking for three and a half hours, decided we should try living separately. The enormous sadness of that, the immense relief. The bitter loneliness.
Together in the car for days on end, the tension returns along with the underlying love and admiration. Their shared love for their daughter brings them together more strongly in Rimini. And when Ana Lisa announces that she is pregnant and that she and Piero are lovers and planning to get married, the parents share their surprise and conflicted joy with one another.
From Rimini, the foursome drive north along the Adriatic before turning west into north-central Italy. At one point they realize that they are following the path that the fallen dictator Mussolini had taken as he tried to escape the Italian partisans who were hunting him down. Rosa had studied modern Italian history at the university and was particularly knowledgeable about the rise and fall of Il Duce. She shared Paolo’s fierce anti-fascist political views. One of Paolo’s uncles had died at the hands of the fascists, and his hometown on Lake Como was the very place that Mussolini had been assassinated.
Rosa has an old friend she met through her business, a wealthy, former movie star who owned a villa near Padua, along the route they were taking. She calls him and garners an invitation for the four of them to spend the night. Little do they know that their overnight stay comes with a requirement that they all attend the movie star’s extravagant costume party that he is hosting that evening. The excess and decadence of the party offends the sensibilities of them all, including Rosa, who apologizes profusely for the ignominy she has put them through. Paolo is taken aback by her apology, claiming it is the first time he’s heard an apology from her in all their marriage. Rosa is so chagrined that she acknowledges other personal failures to Paolo as well. Paolo softens to Rosa at that point and recalls the first time he had brought her north to visit his parents near Lake Como. The bloom of love returns to his memories as he steers them through the exquisite scenery of that area, and north towards his hometown Mezzegra.
Without giving away too much, the foursome meets another travelling party in Mezzegra that has its own genuine spiritual avatars. At this point the story is infused with a decidedly mystical aura that even the cynical Paolo is not immune to. There is a magnificent 10-course Italian country dinner, served outdoors with a stupendous view of the lake. At the end of the dinner, one of the guests, a beautiful and spiritually enlightened American woman, gently challenges both the Pope and the Dalai Lama regarding some of the impediments she sees in their traditional approaches to religion. Paolo rushes to the Pope’s defense, in much the same way that he urged Rosa to tone down her anti-religious statements in the car earlier on the trip. But this time something happens that stops Paulo in his tracks. He hears himself spouting traditional Catholic doctrine and realizes that he is caught up in old, stagnant way of thinking and being. When one of the child-avatars reveals that her 3-year old accomplice has removed the Pope’s and Dalai Lama’s prayer beads from their pockets, he witnesses the astounded expressions on both their faces. Rosa breaks out into full-bodied laughter and Paolo joins her. At that moment, something lifts in Paolo – an uptightness, a need to be right, a fearful caution at the prospect of anyone daring to challenge his beloved cousin.
That night, Paolo and Rosa have to share a sleeping space in a barn. After sharing his own breakthrough in self-awareness, and his realization of how his fears have kept him small and cautious, Rosa shares her own deepest fear: that she will live the rest of her life alone. Paolo is surprised at this admission from his seemingly unflappable spouse. From there, Rosa carries their reconciliation to a culmination:
“What would you say if I told you this trip feels like it was intended by God to bring us together again, Paolo? I even think the Pope might have had that in mind all along. Maybe all this was for us, too, amore…”
“I would say one of two things: either you’re completely crazy, or I’m getting a second chance. A reincarnation without dying.”
She let go of my hand. For a moment I thought she was angry because I’d mentioned reincarnation. I heard her moving in the darkness, and then she said, “I’m disgusting and sweaty, but I’m taking off my underwear. I want you to make love to me. Now. We’ll make peace between us. It will be the start of making peace in the world.”
“I’m not sure I remember how to do it.”
“I’ll remind you,” Rosa said.
This redemption of Paolo and Rosa’s marriage resonated with me. I suspect that many of us older married couples are familiar with some of the back-and-forth bickering that is the go-to place when even minor conflict arises. Merullo obviously has a deep understanding of the kind of chronic verbal slights that poison many intimate relationships. But he is no cynic. The redemption process is believable because he has done such a thorough job of describing what led up to it.
There are many rewarding aspects of Merullo’s latest novel and I heartily recommend it. This is the one that I value most.