Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Review: The Blind Contessa's New Machine, by Carey Wallace

The Blind Contessa's New Machine
by Carey Wallace
Pamela Dorman Books, Viking
207 pages

When I was five, Santa Claus brought me my most coveted item on my list. 

A typewriter.

I'm not talking a Fisher-Price pretend variety.  I'm talking an honest-to-goodness, real, manual, orange and white with a carrying case deluxe model from Sears.

It was all I wanted, and I can see it under the tree as if it was yesterday. (In reality, it was December 1974.) Having a typewriter changed my world. As I explained to Santa while sitting on his lap at Wanamakers, a typewriter would allow me to write my stories faster - and more of them.  How could the world be denied such a talent? Hence, a typewriter - the real deal - was a must.

* * * *
I thought about my first typewriter a lot while reading The Blind Contessa's New Machine.  This enchanting debut novel by Carey Wallace is based on the true story of Pellegrino Turri (referred to in the novel simply as Turri) an Italian "eccentric" who invented the first working typewriter in 1808 for his blind friend, Contessa Carolina Fantoni.  As children, Turri and Carolina were playmates, spending hours on the lake in a small house that Carolina's father gives her as a gift.

(Dang!  I was clearly born at the wrong time and into the wrong family. Here I am going on about one of the best gifts I ever got - a typewriter! - and this chick's parents give her a lakefront property.)

Of course, Turri falls in love with Carolina.  While she feels affectionate towards him, she is infatuated with the debonair and smooth-talkin' Pietro.  Stud muffin Pietro proposes to Carolina and the two are betrothed. Turri marries another, has a child and everyone is on their way to living happily ever after.

Except for a slight problem.

On her wedding day, Carolina realizes she is going blind.  Telling Pietro doesn't do any good - he laughs, refusing to believe her. Neither do her parents, perhaps not wanting to risk the embarrassment of a ruined wedding. The only person who does is - you guessed it - her steadfast and true friend Turri.

Now, I don't have any experience with going blind (nor do I wish to) and neither does author Carey Wallace. That makes her descriptions of Carolina's onset of blindness even more vivid.  This part of the book seemed a little slow going for me, but I think that's intentional.  As the reader, you know Carolina goes blind; watching it unfold in slow motion is a nice literary way of mirroring the agony and futility that she must feel.

Adding to the despair is Pietro, who is a bit of the controlling type to begin with and takes full advantage of this unfortunate situation. Using Carolina's blindness as a means to deceive and isolate her, practically keeping her prisoner with a untrustworthy lying servant (the appropriately named Liza), he essentially keeps her in a world of darkness that has nothing to do with being blind. It is her loyal friend Turri, who by inventing a "writing machine" for Carolina, gives her a means of escape and freedom in more ways than one. 

The Blind Contessa's New Machine reads like a fairy tale.  It has an enchanting quality about it, making it a quick read. (I read it during the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon, making it an ideal book for this event.) I also liked it because Turri clearly has Asperger's Syndrome.

"His face often remained blank as everyone around him burst into laughter. Most unnerving, he often seemed to hang on a girl's every word only to reveal under questioning, just moments later, that he hadn't heard a thing. And though he couldn't seem to hold the thread of conversation in polite society, when a girl. by pure coincidence, stumbled on a subject that was of interest to him, she was lost for the evening. He was capable of ruining an entire dance, talking for hours about salt mines, constellations, metallurgy, lizards, with the innocent confidence of a child convinced that everyone else found the world as strange and fascinating as he did." (pg. 16) 

"Sometimes he had rearranged this or that: he might lay several pens in a neat row on her desk, all their sharp nibs pointing west ...." (pg. 21)

The actual invention of the typewriter isn't really the focus of the story. Rather, it's a story about friendship, about love, about deception, and the price we pay when all three collide. 

 What Other Bloggers Thought:

Fizzy Thoughts
Take Me Away

And Beth Fish Reads, who has taught me all I know about imprints in the publishing world and introduced me to some incredible reads as a result, highlights some other Pamela Dorman books (including The Blind Contessa's New Machine) in this post.

Did I miss your review?  Let me know in the comments!

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've been eying this book, but I'm not positive it would work for me.

Hope you enjoy your holidays Melissa.

Jenny said...

Wow, I didn't catch that when I read it but you're so right! It definitely does have a fairy tale quality. I think what I liked the most about this book was the beautiful writing!

Elizabeth said...

sounds great -- and thanks for reminding me of MY first typewriter. I think I was about ten years old or so -- and I wrote a novel on it!

Amused said...

I loved this book as well and really found the cover and the size unusual. Great review!