Books I Don’t Want to Write, but I’m Glad I Read: Paula Butturini’s Keeping the Feast

I’ve started blogging about books I’m reading that I want to write – food novels and memoirs that currently serve as inspiration, teachers, and blueprints for me as I work on crafting my own novel. And when I started reading Paula Butturini’s memoir, Keeping the Feast, I thought it would fall into that category. And it did to a certain extent. But this is not a book I want to write.

Mostly because Paula Butturini is telling the story of one of the absolute darkest times of her life. This memoir tracks a rather short period of time (a few years, perhaps), during which Butturini herself was brutally beaten by a police officer during the Velvet Rebellion (which she was covering as a journalist at the time). About a month later, weeks after their wedding, her husband, John, also a journalist in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism, was shot and nearly killed by a sniper while he was riding in a car with several other journalists.

During the next several months, her husband’s body works to repair the tunnel left through his mid-section by that bullet. But even more damaging, he spends the next several years fighting against a crippling depression that renders him unable to return to work or normal life. He suffers from flash backs, anxiety, and debilitating fear of another attack.

When Butturini’s life is at its worst, she and John head to Italy to stay at the summer cottage they have returned to each summer throughout their marriage. Through the next couple years, in the country where they met and fell in love, Paula Butturini and her husband work at slowly repairing the damage.

At the darkest moments, she breaks her days down into meals. She needs only to feed herself and her husband, get meals on the table. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Sleep. Repeat. One meal at a time, she gets through each day, dealing with her own anxiety, anger, and loss, as John suffers and fights against the demons inside of him.

This book had me in tears (like, raw, ridiculous, hold my hair and sob kind of tears), and on the other side of the coin, it filled me with such joy. Paula Butturini is a writer who is completely in control of her craft and her subject matter. She never loses her narrative stance, never falters from what I can only describe as a hybrid form of writing:  the beauty of poetry, the matter of fact-ness of journalism.

Throughout the memoir, food is what guides Butturini through. Memories of food from her childhood, from her grandparents, from her husband’s family. Their food lives combining into a marriage where they both enjoy cooking. Some of their first social exchanges when they first met were over food they cooked for a large group of friends, other journalists in Rome.

What I found surprising about the book, however, was the way that faith crept into it. I had no idea, in the beginning, that Butturini had any particular religious convictions. I didn’t think she lacked them either; they just didn’t present themselves for consideration at all. But once she returns to Rome and is working with John to get him through his depression, she rises early each morning, walks to the market to buy their food for the day, and then stops into a Catholic chapel. She kneels before a painting of Mary and the Baby, and she prays and cries, raging against God for allowing this to happen. It takes awhile for her to realize that she is angry. It takes kneeling in that church and crying and finding herself banging her fists against the pew in front of her. That anger is good. It’s useful. It’s what pulls her through, and ultimately, what pulls John through too.

The faith she describes isn’t the type I grew up with. Evangelical religion presents itself immediately. It’s part of the job description of evangelicals:  let everyone know where you stand, be a witness, and if they need to talk about salvation, make yourself available. But I find that other religions don’t focus on that presentation of beliefs as much. Butturini is an example. Her quiet faith, complicated as it was, was part of what drove her and John towards recovery. But I had no idea it was there until she returned to Rome, until she began praying in that chapel each day. And that’s probably okay. I didn’t need to know until then.

I have suffered loss in my life, as the previous blog post to this one will tell you. None as gruesome as the ones that Paula Butturini describes. Her talent for description makes that policeman’s night stick come alive for you, raised in the air over her, coming down hard with a crack against her bones. She, of all people, had reason to be angry and walk away from God. And maybe she did for awhile. Maybe she scrambled from hospital to hospital with John, to the United States and back to Europe, and all the while was flatly pissed off at God. And when she was ready, when she could, she went back. She knelt in a chapel. Maybe she didn’t even pray at first. Perhaps she just sat, quiet in a room with God, squaring off, but showing up to do the battle that she had been building up to. A battle, really, not just for her faith, but for her life, her sanity, her ability to make it through lunch and dinner and another night of fitful sleep.

I have suffered loss. I have been angry. I have walked away. What I read in this book gave me a renewed sense that people can come back, quietly, on their own terms, and in their own time. No one was casting glances at her, watching over her shoulder, urging her to get back to her religion before she died and ended up getting cast headlong into Hell. Faith is bigger than that, I think. If each of us is beautifully and wonderfully made, and we possess this vast and complex array of emotions, then I have a hard time thinking that God sets an egg timer for how long you’re allowed to be mad at Him, and if you’re still mad when it goes off, you’re lost.

This wasn’t supposed to turn into a post about religion and faith, but then, I didn’t expect it of Butturini’s memoir either. But it did – here, and in the book. And I’m glad it did. I’m thankful to have read Keeping the Feast, a haunting, gripping, beautiful book about food, loss, healing, faith, and love.

9 thoughts on “Books I Don’t Want to Write, but I’m Glad I Read: Paula Butturini’s Keeping the Feast

  1. Dana, This is the best review that I have read of Paula’s memoir! Bravo! You really understood it.

    Paula has been speaking to large groups since the book came out in several areas of the country, which has been so meaningful to people who have had family members suffering with depression or other mental illnesses. I had a NAMI fundraiser in a theater in Northern Virginia last year and her speech was riveting.

    Kathy Conklin

  2. Dana, a friend came across your review of my book, and sent it along to me. Keeping the Feast has been reviewed in newspapers and magazines and by bloggers all over the US since it first came out, but I have to tell you that your blogpost captured the essence of it in ways few others did.

    I’ve spent much of the last two and a half years talking about clinical depression and how we fought to keep our family together when it struck my husband and my mother. I’ve spoken at mental health organizations, in churches of various denominations, at universities worried about student suicides, to women’s clubs, book clubs, writers’ conferences, to Italian-American organizations, radio hosts, even to members of an academy of clinical psychologists, as well as to the more usual groups at bookstores, and libraries.

    Many reviewers focused on the food aspects of the book, and how eating together three times a day around our family table helped keep us tethered somehow to normal life, the life we knew before our troubles erupted. But as you so clearly saw, Keeping the Feast was never meant to be a foodie romp through Italy, but rather a way to offer frank talk about mental illness, to remind people that depression — like cancer — is an illness, NOT a judgment. Most of all the book is meant to remind families living with a member in depression that with good medical care, the illness DOES go away, and that joy and peace can and will return to family life, if we help remind each other that life is meant to lived with joy, even at the worst of times.

    I wrote the book with my husband’s blessing — both John and I wanted our children and grandchildren — and other families’ children and grandchildren — to know that just because depression hits a close relative, it doesn’t mean that they too are doomed to suffer the same illness. Both of us believe strongly that the more informed our children were about this illness, the better they would be able to fight it themselves if it ever threatened them. We wanted to give them a vocabulary about depression, so they too could understand it, think about it, and not be frightened about it on their own part.

    Too many people are still so terrified about the illness and its stigma that they feel compelled to hide it. Hiding just makes it worse. Our family, by talking frankly about these problems, has been helped time and again by other family members, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers.

    Your review helped us as well, and we all thank you for it.

    Paula Butturini

    1. Oh wow, Paula, thank you so much for these kind words! I’m so happy that you were pleased with the review and my reading of your book. The memoir really opened up depression, faith, and grief in a new way for me, which I actually didn’t expect when I first started reading it. Those topics become so big for us, and our language about them so practiced, that when an author manages to cast them in new light, it’s important we take notice. And that’s what you did for me. So thank you!

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