Readers can debate whether Etto or soccer or the town of San Benedetto is the main character in The Sun and Other Stars: the novel can reach readers’ hearts via more than one route.
And, yet, that suggests that the three can be separated, whereas this twenty-two-year-old man and calcio (kick/soccer) and the Italian Riviera setting are inextricably intertwined.
Consider this breathy sentence from the novel’s opening chapter:
“Anyway, Mamma, the Scottish boys, and Papà’s friends immediately started laughing at Papà’s English, and nearly set off an international incident when they were shushed by the Spaniards in the row in front of them, who were shushed by the Peruvians in front of them, who were shushed by the Cameroonese or Cameroonians or whatever in front of them, who were shushed by the Poles in front of them.”
The passage reveals the bizarrely intimate and exclusionary experience of attending a calcio match in Italy; it is an international sport, yet, but all that really matters is the interaction between one man and one woman and their shared passions (for sports and for life), for this is the story about Mamma and Papà’s courtship.
There are many other attendees at the match, just as there are many other villagers whose stories populate the novel’s pages (the author references Dante in her acknowledgments, and the versions of his characters that populate San Benedetto).
But it doesn’t matter from whence they’ve come (not even how one should refer to them), unless they are residents, unless their lives and deaths are woven into this web of community.
And, yes, deaths are integrally important to the story, principally those of Etto’s brother and mother.
“This is another thing you will discover if you lose someone close to you – if you ever want to go out in public again, you’ll have to learn how to treat our grief like a goiter or a great big boil. You’ll have to learn how to camouflage it and tuck it away so as not to scare the living.”
Life unfolds in the wake of those losses, on a small and familiar stage for Etto, though he inhabits the shadows and keeps his distance now. When someone new comes to town, the change embodies a threat and a promise. “Her accent is off, the middle and ends of her words sharp like elbows.”
But despite the insularity in the town and in Etto’s experience of the world, there is a broader emphasis on connections between characters and on the potential to tangle.
One character’s observations of a particular work of art could summarize what Brigid Pasulka seeks to portray in The Sun and Other Stars:
“She called it human. And finally, that day, I saw what she saw, that this great work of art was just people doing human things – crying, blushing, sewing, grimacing, thinking, and doing those things with wool and weaving that no one knows the words to anymore. All of them intertwined.”
There is no ‘laughing’ referred to in that artwork, but there are humourous scenes in this novel, and many moments at which readers will smile, either in understanding or amusement. (Alternatively, Brigid Pasulka has learned to camouflage the sorrow, like a goiter or a boil.) Even the tone of that long sentence about the match is playful.
“Trust me. Calcio fix everything. You do not know the power of calico. Calcio put back order in universe. Calcio making everything better.”
There is a lot of calcio talk in this novel, but just as Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage is about swimming but not only about swimming and just as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is about baseball but not only about baseball, The Sun and Other Stars is about calcio but also about “all labors of love and celebrations of life”.*
“People dedicate themselves to calcio, season after season, for the same reason they keep getting married even though they’re tripping over their friends’ divorces wherever they go.”
Ultimately The Sun and Other Stars is about being hopeful, about looking beyond, about shared losses and possibilities. Brigid Pasulka paints a picture in subtle but memorable hues: human and intertwined.
*This is taken from the author’s acknowledgments, when she discusses the fun that she had writing the novel. You can learn more about her writing by visiting the publisher’s site and viewing a short interview. (Click on the cover image above.)