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A family’s curse: Michigan author explores pressure of love, marriage for women

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

New York Times best-selling author Lori Nelson Spielman’s latest novel was delayed twice this year.

“It was like the baby that wouldn’t be born,” says Spielman, laughing. “At first, it was supposed to come out in February, then it was moved to April, then (the publisher) decided November, believing the pandemic would be over.”

“The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany” (Berkley, $16) will be released Tuesday. In fact, Spielman launches her book tour on the 17th in “An Evening with Lori Nelson Spielman,” a virtual event held at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor at 7 p.m. Registration is free. There will be an audience Q&A via Zoom. Autographed copies of “Star-Crossed” are available for purchase at Nicola’s.

“This is the first book event I’ve ever done remotely,” says Spielman. “I’m a little nervous, but – hopefully – it will go off without a hitch.”

Lori Nelson Spielman, outside her Lansing-area home.

A graduate of Grand Ledge High School, Spielman has undergraduate and graduate degrees in speech and language pathology from Central Michigan University. She also has a certification in counseling from Michigan State University. Additionally, she completed writing classes at Lansing Community College. Spielman lives in Lansing with Dr. Bill Spielman, a retired MSU physiology professor.

Before becoming a novelist in 2013, Spielman was an educator for nearly 30 years, working as a speech pathologist, high school guidance counselor and homebound teacher. Her previous books include “The Life List” and “Sweet Forgiveness.” Her third book, “Quote Me,” was sold in 13 countries, but the United States wasn’t one of them.

“It’s like a miscarriage, if we continue with the birth analogy,” she says. “If you can read German or French, you can read it. Otherwise, it’ll never see the light of day in the U.S. My agent Jenny Bent pitched it and there was some interest. It was a hard book for me to wrap my head around. It was about a grieving mother. One of her daughters is on a train that derailed and is presumed dead. Her body’s identified but it’s so disfigured, there’s some doubt and her mother is wondering, ‘Is this really my daughter?’ It’s much heavier than what I typically write. It was like an octopus – it had lots of tentacles, lots of side-stories. There was an editor here in the U.S. who was willing to work with us, but it would’ve taken a lot of work (to rewrite). By then, we were ready to go on to the next project since we worked on that one a long time.”

"The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany," by Lori Nelson Spielman

 That next project was “Star-Crossed.” In it, Paulina “Poppy” Fontana – who lives in the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York – invites her great-nieces, Emilia and Lucy, to visit her birthplace in Italy. There, on her 80th birthday, Poppy declares that she’ll meet the love of her life and put an end to the Fontana Family Second-Daughter Curse for all time.

This alleged curse is probably nothing but a coincidence, an old-world myth. Even so, nobody can deny that for two centuries, not a single second-born daughter in the Fontana family has gotten married. Emilia actually appreciates the curse – some may even say she hides behind it. What might happen if this curse is actually broken and she's expected to find love?

“I liked the idea of what if somebody knew from a very young age that they would never find love? Might that free them from all the pressures – I hate to say it – that sometimes women feel to fall in love, have children, and to do all the traditional things that are expected of us,” explains Spielman. “What if you were quite certain that would never be in your life path? How might you live your life differently? How would that happen? Why would anyone believe that? So I came up with an old family curse, a 200-year-old curse that’s basically a self-fulfilling prophecy in where the second-born daughter in the Fontana family never finds ever-lasting love.”  

Spielman based Poppy on New York native Iris Apfel, 99, a renowned businesswoman and fashion icon, after seeing a documentary about her.  

“I just loved her in this documentary,” she said. “I thought that’s going to be Aunt Poppy – she’s just full of life and a character who wears red (feather) boas and big, chunky turquoise necklaces and these huge glasses. She would say, ‘Scatter my ashes at Bergdorf’s’ (referring to Bergdorf Goodman, the department store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan). She’s a real hoot!”

Spielman spoke about creating cousins Emilia and Lucy.

“With the curse, these women might react in one or two ways: They may just embrace the curse and… just live freely without any expectation of finding love. That’s Emilia. She doesn’t wear makeup and puts her hair in a ponytail, that sort of thing,” said Spielman. “The other extreme would be someone who’s desperate to break the curse and that’s cousin Lucy. I wanted two extremes.”

“Star-Crossed” starts out in Brooklyn, but it also occurs in Venice, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. The trio of second-born daughters’ trip to Italy was based on the one Spielman took with her husband.

“The three regions – Venice, Tuscany, and the Amalfi Coat – have such distinct personalities that mirror the women’s journey. In the beginning, they’re in Venice and they’re lost because it’s a maze of canals and bridges. It fit. They’re confused and trying to find themselves. In Tuscany, it’s the city of art and history. They go back to their Great-Aunt Poppy’s home. It’s a time of education and discovery. And the Amalfi Coast is where Poppy’s sure she’ll meet the love of her life and break the curse on her 80th birthday. That is the most romantic, gorgeous spot filled with hope and romance. Those three regions felt right to me,” she said.

According to Spielman, “Star-Crossed” is a best-seller in Germany and Israel. It’s one of the November selections for the Book of the Month Club and the Indie Next Pick for December. It’s also on LibraryReads’ Top 10 list of books.

“It was a joy to write. I can’t say that about all my books. I remember telling (fellow Michigan author) Julie Lawson Timmer, ‘This feels pretty fun again,’” said Spielman. “The world is full of a lot of darkness. I think my books provide a bit of escapism and some inspiration or hope.”

“Lori Nelson Spielman creates stories that draw you in immediately and make you never want to leave,” said Timmer. “She brings characters to such vivid life, you’ll feel they’re friends. She is so brilliant at pacing, you’ll (promise yourself) ‘Just one more page’ until it’s hours later and you’ve reached the end. But, perhaps best of all, Spielman has a talent for delivering feel-good, happy-tears endings that feel at once unexpected and just right. I have loved all of Spielman’s novels, but (‘Star-Crossed’) is my favorite. It is Lori Nelson Spielman at her best, and, in a year like this one, what a gift that is.” 

'An Evening with Lori Nelson Spielman'

7 p.m. Tuesday

A virtual event  sponsored by Nicola’s Books

To register, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-lori-nelson-spielman-tickets-125475836605.

Autographed copies of Spielman’s latest book, “The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany,” will be available for purchase at Nicola’s, 2513 Jackson Ave. in Ann Arbor. For more information, call Nicola’s at (734) 662-0600 or visit info@nicolasbooks.com.