The Proxy Bride
by Terri Favro
Toronto, ON: Quattro Books, 2012
$14.95, 123 pp
This novel is a raucous, gritty roller coaster of betrayal, lost innocence and desire set in one of the seedier scenarios depicted of Southern Ontario. I want to say something about Terri Favro’s work that may sound sexist … She writes like a man. I know, I know, but Favro does something that is rare in female writers – she enters into a largely male, testosterone fueled world of petty organized crime with bravery and a moving understanding of the male psyche and the damage that it can sometimes do. Despite the intensity of the plot, it strikes the right balance of humour and pathos. Terri Favro’s prose is enticing, the characters vivid and the dialogue thoroughly believable.
It is the township of Niagara on the eve of the first lunar moon landing in 1969. As the novel opens, Marcello Jr. (also known as Cello) has just “accidentally” bedded Claudia, a tangerine nailed cougar and mother of two who is paying off one of her husband’s debts to Kowalchuk, a particularly ruthless, local, small time gangster. Cello, who happens upon Claudia with a query about a discarded television and is mistaken for someone else, is both overwhelmed and grateful. As a young boy he was promised to the church by his family, the Andolinis, and has reluctantly agreed to soon join the seminary.
What’s not to love about Cello, the young hero of The Proxy Bride? He is a reluctant porn-smuggling, aspiring seminarian who works in his father’s candy store and who sometimes grudgingly assists Kowalchuk when he needs some muscle on his extortion jobs terrorizing the local citizenry. Favro’s characters are compelling. Not only do I feel that I can see these characters clearly on the page … in some instances I feel that I have met them in my own life. Marcello
Senior may be a brute and a boor who emotionally abuses his son but one can’t help feeling for the old man when his son finds him weeping over some hackneyed, melodramatic plot of a particularly poignant episode of The Days of our Lives on TV. When Cello expresses astonishment, Senior reprimands his son for succumbing to the cold emotional climate of their adopted country. Alcoholic, abusive … but the old man is also a lonely and an inept businessman who is under the thumb of Kowalchuk to whom he owes money on a number of losing ventures.
Bum Bum, a very young boy pressured into sexual acts with the locals because he has no protection or resources of his own, is heartbreaking in his powerlessness. Kowalchuk and his dopey minions who have plans to expand his distribution of porn (and that will have startling consequences for Cello) are unsavoury, violent and repulsive. This elicits an almost visceral response of distaste and fear in the reader. Cello, perhaps, acts recklessly in sleeping with Claudia, subverting his own self-imposed vows of celibacy and falling in love with Ida, the Italian born proxy bride that his father has had brought over from Italy with a loan from the unscrupulous Kowalchuk but he is eminently sympathetic too – no more so than when he pines for his mother Sofia who died of polio many years before. It leaves him with the lingering sense that anyone he loves, and who dares to love him back, is doomed to die.
Cello yearns for a mother figure but, more importantly, he just plain yearns for love. How could he resist the lovely Ida when she arrives from Italy – pretty, delicate in appearance, equally lonely, sharp tongued and smart? Cello soon falls for his would-be stepmother who is only a few years older than him. Their illicit liaison commences but is menaced from all sides -by his father’s wrath, by Kowalchuk’s beady, covetous eye that is now on Ida, by Cello’s commitment to the priesthood and his sense of shame and guilt.
Cello’s sorrows are set against the backdrop of the race to the moon, which serves as an apt metaphor for the plot. Which of the three astronauts will reach the moon’s surface first? Which of the three men vying for Ida (Marcello Sr., Cello or Kowalchuck who paid to have her brought to Canada and assumes a proprietary stance towards her) will win her favour? The ending is so harrowing and unexpected, yet so satisfying, that it stayed with me for days. The Proxy Bride is terrifying in its honest portrayal of brutal men sometimes engaged in mind-numbing cruelty but it is not without its streak of romantic fervor. All is not lost … for love, finally, does find a way for Cello.