"The Sculptor and the Marzipan Maker"
Beauty, art, and forbidden love in Boston, 1918: a story by Lynda Cohen Loigman.
I fall in love with a lot of books. But it’s rare that something will resonate so deeply with me, I need to climb out of my bathtub (where I do most of my reading) at 11 o’clock at night to email the author a thank-you note for writing such a gorgeous book. I’ve done it exactly once, with Lynda Cohen Loigman’s novel The Matchmaker’s Gift (out this Tuesday), a dual-perspective historical split between a young immigrant matchmaker in 1910 and her divorce-attorney granddaughter in 1994. Lynda and I soon met for drinks, and she’s just as warm and wonderful IRL as she is on the page.
Her short story for Heartbeat is an utter treat, complete with sumptuous prose and an early twentieth-century backdrop. Violetta is about to enter a marriage that’s more like a business arrangement, but then she meets a kind soul who sees her for who she really is. Can they find a way to be together? Enjoy.
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“The Sculptor and the Marzipan Maker”
One month before the Great War ended, Violetta left her tiny village of Avella for the crowded port of Naples. Compared to that now distant city, the people in Boston were even less welcoming. When she finally arrived in the North End, people bumped into her everywhere she turned. Instead of the hazelnut orchards of home, here, only buildings rose up from the earth. Instead of grass and pale pink primrose, the ground was covered with bricks and pavement, cobblestones and thick cement. Though she heard people everywhere speaking her language, it sounded different in the cold, briny air.
Her uncle was not particularly happy to see her, and for the entirety of her first night in America, she was kept awake by his snores, the shouting of neighbors, and the groan of pipes through the tenement walls. She was up and ready before the sunrise, worried that he might leave without her. The wind blew through her shawl as if it were paper, and by the time they arrived at Enzo’s bakery, her ears were numb. Her uncle nodded his head toward a dark green awning. “There it is,” he said. “Say hello to your future husband for me and don’t forget to bring home some bread.”
She was disappointed to be meeting her fiancé this way, but she knew her intended was a busy man. Enzo owned one of the North End’s most successful bakeries and, as her uncle had already explained, he needed a wife who understood his priorities—someone from home who wouldn’t expect the kind of life or attention he could not give. “A girl from Avella who knows her place,” her uncle had said.
Inside the shop, scents of yeast and butter drove the smell of fish from her nostrils. Loaves of different sizes filled baskets on the floor, and the display case was piled with cookies and rolls. Violetta’s stomach growled.
“Good morning,” she told the wrinkled man behind the counter. “I am looking for Enzo.”
The man narrowed his watery eyes. “He isn’t here. Come back tomorrow.” He waved her away to dismiss her. Customers began to crowd the space, throwing coins on the counter and calling out for what they wanted. Violetta did not move.
Thirty minutes later, a burly man carrying a sack of flour entered the shop. He looked to be in his thirties, strong and squat, with a full head of dark, curly hair. He set his sack down in the corner and approached her.
“I am Enzo,” he said. “You are Violetta, yes?”
When Violetta offered a sheepish smile, he took her smooth chin in his rough, careless hand. “Your father’s letter didn’t say how young you were.”
Violetta felt her cheeks redden at his touch. She was eighteen—old enough to cross an ocean alone, old enough to marry a man she’d never met.
Enzo let go of her chin and caressed a strand of her long dark hair. He fixed his eyes on her breasts. “He didn’t say how beautiful you were either.”
The next few days were difficult ones. Violetta had assumed they would marry immediately, but Enzo claimed that with the holidays approaching, he was too busy to plan a wedding. Besides, he needed her in the shop. Her uncle grumbled at the news. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “Enzo is a businessman above all else. He wants you to prove your worth to him first.”
Violetta’s heart sank at her uncle’s words. Perhaps if she’d known that her future happiness depended upon her baking skills, she would have paid more attention long ago when her mother tried to teach her. The very idea was absurd, but if she wanted the wedding to go forward, she knew that she would have to learn.
Unfortunately, from the first attempt, it was clear she had no talent for baking bread. Her loaves came out spongy or grainy or burnt. Her cornetti were inedible. And no matter how hard Violetta tried, she could not manage to make a decent batch of the chestnut-filled calzoncelli cookies that customers ordered by the dozen. Enzo’s smiles turned to scowls, and Violetta worried not only for her job, but for her promised marriage as well. Her uncle would not let her stay with him forever. What would she do if Enzo called off their arrangement?
Luckily, with Christmas less than two months away, the baker couldn’t afford to lose a single employee. Displaying no other useful skills, Violetta was kept busy with lesser chores—peeling oranges and lemons, chopping dried fruits, and cleaning the bowls, bread pans, and trays. She scrubbed until her fingers swelled and her lower back ached from standing in place. But no matter how tired she was, she didn’t dare to complain.
The job she enjoyed least of all was the blanching, peeling, and grinding of almonds to make dough for the frutta martorana. She hated the feel of the wet almond skins—like insect wings between her fingers. But the hand-painted, sculpted marzipan fruits were a sought-after holiday staple. No festive table was complete without the delicate candy-sized delicacies. One of Enzo’s bakers—Luca, from Sicily—was put in charge of their production.
Violetta had seen frutta martorana only a few times in her childhood. Once, she had studied a marzipan “peach” for hours instead of eating it. The coloring was realistic enough, but the illusion was ruined by the rough, raised seam that ran across the glossy surface. Even at only ten years of age, she’d wondered whether she could improve the design. Now, as she watched the Sicilian baker sculpt his crudely formed shapes, she wondered whether it was finally time for her to have that chance.
She waited until the end of the day, when Enzo was in a good mood. Then she smoothed her flour-dusted hair and smiled her most deferential smile. “When I am finished with my other tasks, I would like to work on the marzipan fruits. I have some ideas that will bring in more customers.”
His reply was skeptical, but he did not refuse her. “I doubt that very much,” he said. “Everyone knows that Luca’s frutta martorana are the best in the city.”
Violetta did not contradict him, but she felt a long-buried confidence stirring from within.
How happy she would be to prove him wrong.
As a child, Violetta had never been at ease among the other girls and boys in her village. While they were busy playing among the hazelnut trees, she and her grandfather searched for the clay buried in beds along the river’s edge. Look for where the mud begins to change color, he told her. Hold it in your hands, the texture should be like so. Together, they carried buckets of mud to the shed behind his cottage, where they mixed it with water and strained away the impurities. Then they wrapped it in cloth and hung it to dry.
At first, Violetta sculpted only animals. She had a fondness for the rabbits who made their home on the hillside, munching on patches of nasturtium in the sun. Hours would pass while she sat in silence, trying not to scare them away. Sometimes she fell asleep among the amber-colored blossoms, dreaming of cottony tails and long ears.
By the time Violetta was ten or eleven, she turned her attention to human subjects. Her models were mostly her siblings or the old men who played cards with her grandfather. Faces were always the biggest challenge. Eyelids and nostrils were difficult, but she found ears to be the most complicated of all. They were delicately opaque, endlessly variable. Like fingerprints, no two were alike.
When the other children saw the pile of clay ears she had made, they whispered about her strange proclivities. And when she began to sculpt nude bodies, both the children and their parents spread cruel rumors—Violetta was immodest, impious, shameless. When she turned seventeen, it became clear to her family that no one in the village would ever marry her. It was then that her father hatched the plan to send her to America to marry Enzo. In Boston, surely, she would be too busy baking to find the time or the energy to sculpt. The curiosities of her past would become a memory. She would become a wife and a mother, and all would be well.
As it turned out, even Luca had to admit that Violetta had a gift for his craft: the peels on her marzipan “lemons” were perfectly dimpled; the skins on her “strawberries” were seamlessly seeded. She made six dozen marzipan fruits and vegetables in vibrant reds, yellows and greens. Between drying, painting, and glazing, they took several days to produce. On the morning she put them out to be sold, they were gone before the lunchtime rush. The next day, she made ten dozen more. Soon, the lines at the bakery were wrapped halfway around the block. Customers clamored for her creations and Enzo took in more money than ever before. He began to smile at her again.
Still, he rarely spoke to her about anything other than her work. He never asked how she liked her new city, or whether she missed her mother and father. Every once in a while, she caught him staring, as if she were a pastry he wanted to devour. Despite the fact that he was her betrothed, Violetta sensed peril in those eyes. She made sure never to get too close and never to be alone with him.
A few weeks before Christmas, Violetta decided to make something she had seen only in her dreams. She had no idea how to explain it, so she did not ask for Enzo’s permission. From the marzipan dough, she went about shaping dozens of miniature stella di natale. The Christmas flowers were barely dry the next day when she painted them in reds and pinks and whites. She arranged them in the window so that the bakery looked almost like a flower shop.
The lines around the store grew longer; people passing her in the street called out compliments for her work. But along with her growing sense of pride came a burgeoning sense of dread. She had been sent to America because there was no other option. But now, with the acknowledgment of her talents, she began to see another path. What if she could earn a living and find happiness apart from the marriage that had been arranged for her?
The next day, Enzo received an order for a prominent neighbor’s holiday party. The man sent his housekeeper to order a dozen platters of Enzo’s pastries, along with two hundred marzipan flowers crafted by the “famous marzipan maker.” After he wrote down the order, Enzo paid a visit to Violetta’s uncle to set the wedding date for the middle of January. That night, before she fell asleep, Violetta covered her face with her pillow and cried.
The next morning, she got to the bakery early. A young man she didn’t recognize stood on the sidewalk with his nose pressed against the window. The morning moon hung in the still dark sky, but the light from the streetlamp illuminated his features—his full, warm smile and bright, eager eyes. “Have you ever seen such wonderful creations?” he asked. “What do you imagine they are made of?”
If he had been able to take his eyes from the window, he would have seen the smile that played upon her lips. “They’re made of marzipan,” she said.
“I wonder how they taste, don’t you?”
Violetta began to laugh. “I have eaten my fill of them,” she said. But if you come back when the store opens, I will be happy to save one for you.”
“Do you mean to say that you made these?” He reached for her hand. “Tell me, please, what do you call them? Did someone teach you? How do you make them?”
She smiled at his barrage of questions while slowly pulling her hand away.
“You are an artist,” he continued. “Not just an artist—you are a sculptor! I happen to be a sculptor as well, so you see, the two of us are the same.” He held out his hand. “I am Giuseppe.”
Without warning, her eyes began to tear.
“Are you all right?” the man asked. “Did I say something to offend you?”
“No, no, absolutely not. But if you will excuse me, I have work to do.”
With trembling fingers, she opened the bakery door, shut it behind her, and sank to the floor. A flood of sweat streamed down the back of her neck. Somehow, this handsome, smiling stranger knew what was hidden at the core of her heart. Somehow, he had distilled her truest essence as easily as someone else might have said her name.
All that afternoon, while she shaped fruits and flowers, Violetta could not stop thinking about what Giuseppe said. An hour before closing, the cashier told her that someone was asking for her up front. With a hint of mockery he added, “The ‘talented woman who makes the marzipan sculptures.’ That is how he described you.”
Violetta pretended to be displeased by the interruption, but the truth was, she was delighted.
When she got to the front room, there he was, deep in conversation with her fiancé. The sight of the two men together turned something in the pit of her stomach. While Enzo’s expression was stiff and severe, the other man’s was gentle and relaxed. Both of them smiled when she approached, and she did not know who to look at first. “Here is my bride-to-be,” said Enzo. “Violetta, this is my cousin, Giuseppe. He carves monuments for Signore Lavezzello, the owner of the funeral home down the street.”
“It is nice to meet you,” said Giuseppe.
Violetta’s heart hammered in her chest. How could the two of them be cousins? How could two men of such opposite temperaments have even a hint of the same blood in their veins?
“The same to you,” she said demurely, following along in his deceit. So, you are a sculptor then?” Violetta glanced at Giuseppe’s hands—hands that could shape and mold and create. Before she could stop herself, she imagined what it would be like to have his hands on her bare skin. Her breath thickened in her throat.
“I am,” said Giuseppe. “And I must say, I am charmed by your creations.”
Enzo smirked. “Her marzipan flowers have become so popular that I am going to raise the price. Who would have thought that I would make back the cost of her passage from Italy so quickly?”
He spoke about her as if she was an animal he had purchased to work in his fields. Violetta’s heart sank with shame, but Enzo did not notice her silence. He led his cousin to the vast back room and showed him the most recent batch of her flowers, set out on metal racks to dry. Giuseppe stepped closer to see them more carefully. He traced one of his fingers over the unpainted leaves. “The detail on the petals in incredible,” he said. When Enzo’s back was turned, Giuseppe moved his fingers until they were just inches away from her own. “Incredible,” he repeated.
The nearness of him gave off its own heat, which traveled up her arms and to the back of her neck. “The ovens make the room hot,” she murmured, her cheeks blushing to a sudden, glowing red. Giuseppe nodded in agreement. “It is very warm, indeed,” he said.
The next morning, he intercepted her before she crossed the street to the shop. “Will you walk a bit with me?” he asked. “You have half an hour before the bakery opens.”
“I like to be early,” Violetta answered. But she did not want to tell him no, and so, she fell into step beside him. As they walked up Salem Street together, he told her about the work he did, and the monuments he made. She had always longed to work with stone, but it was a luxury she could never afford. “How did you begin?” she asked.
“My grandfather and his brothers were traveling stone masons. As young men, they made a trip to Rome. My earliest memories are of my Nonno showing me the postcards of the statues he saw there. He dreamt of sculpting fountains instead of stone walls.”
“My grandfather encouraged me to sculpt as well! And did your Nonno ever sculpt his fountain?”
Giuseppe shook his head. “No. He told me it was one of the great disappointments of his life that he had not been blessed with the necessary gifts.”
“But he passed his knowledge on to you?”
Giuseppe shrugged. “I was the last of his grandsons, and he doted on me. It was his dream to take me to Rome, to visit the statues and the fountains he remembered.”
“You didn’t go?”
“His health turned poor, and it became impossible. Before he died, I promised him I would visit his favorite city one day. After he died, I came to Boston. It isn’t Rome, but Signore Lavezzello has been very good to me. He secures the marble for my monuments and pays me well for my commissions.”
“I would like to see your work.”
Giuseppe suppressed a smile. “You will have to go to the cemetery then.”
Later, she would wonder how she ever found the courage to respond so boldly. “Will you meet me on Sunday? The bakery will be closed.”
The Washington Street Elevated took her to Forest Hills, where she met Giuseppe at the cemetery entrance. The grounds were more like a park than a graveyard: meticulously landscaped, bucolic, and peaceful. Tombstones of various shapes and sizes were organized along the narrow pathways—some ordinary, but some intricately embellished with lilies, sheaves of wheat, and twisting vines.
Giuseppe led her to an elaborately carved cross, made entirely of marble roses and poppies. It was a design she never would have thought to create – lavish and romantic, more love letter than tomb. “I carved this last year,” Giuseppe told her. “For a young bride who died. Her husband had no photograph of her, so I made this for him instead. He swore he would never marry again.”
Suddenly, Violetta found herself choking back tears. If she were to die after marrying Enzo, she had no doubt he would find another bride. For Enzo, their union was not about love, but a business arrangement of the most basic kind.
In a single motion, Giuseppe was beside her, pressing his handkerchief into her hand. She lifted her lashes to look into his eyes and felt a swell of tenderness rising in her throat. But when he leaned down to brush a strand of hair from her forehead, she took a step back and pulled away. No matter the desire that rose up between them, Violetta could not forget that she was tethered to another.
Over the next few weeks, whenever it was possible, the two of them met in Forest Hills. As they walked, they shared memories of the families they missed and the villages they had left behind. Together, they examined the grandest of monuments made by masters of their craft. Violetta confessed her childhood fascination with sculpting ears, and Giuseppe confessed his preoccupation with hands. They talked about the endless hours of practice, their obsession with detail, the way their siblings teased them.
“You are the only person I know who understands,” he told her.
“I feel exactly the same.”
The more she got to know Giuseppe, the more Violetta dreaded her marriage to Enzo. Lately, in anticipation of their union, the baker had been making advances. He brushed up against her when no one was looking and whispered into her ear of what they would do on their wedding night. The more he whispered, the more she looked forward to the peace she found on her walks with the sculptor.
On New Year’s Day, she brought a box of pastries to the cemetery. They ate them together as they stood in the cold, examining the feathers of a marble angel’s wings. Thoughts of her impending wedding reduced her to tears once again. When Giuseppe moved closer to comfort her this time, she could not find the strength to step away. Their first kiss was of apricot, lemon, and fig—all the familiar tastes of home. After that, the sweetness burned away, like caramel over a white-hot flame. It was then that Giuseppe told her his plan for the two of them to marry. The rest of their kisses were whiskey and smoke—a stinging ache, a hint of fire.
Although Violetta wanted to be honest with Enzo, Giuseppe convinced her to hold her tongue. He told her stories of his cousin’s temper, his violent outbursts, and his long-held grudges. Years earlier, one of Enzo’s friends had become his romantic rival. The friend wound up with a broken nose, and the girl fled to a farm in western Massachusetts. It was rumored that Enzo had followed her there, but the owner of the farm hid her in his barn. In any event, she never returned, and the other man eventually moved away.
Unwilling to risk a similar fate, the pair planned in secret to leave Boston together. But because Violetta’s wages were paid directly to her uncle, they had only Giuseppe’s meager savings. In order to have enough money for the train fare and for a place to stay in New York, they could not hope to leave the North End before Giuseppe completed his most recent commission for Signore Lavezzello. As long as the monument was finished on time, he would be paid two days before the wedding. When Violetta contemplated the timing, she found that she could barely breathe.
There was no time for trips to Forest Hills now—only short, stolen moments on their lunch breaks. They began meeting daily away from the bakery, along the waterfront, near the North End beach. The view wasn’t pretty—there were no sparkling waves and no green islands in the distance. There was only the narrow stretch of the harbor with a view of Charlestown on the other side. Beyond the tracks of the elevated train, a great metal tank dominated the view.
“What is that?” Violetta asked, when she first spotted the structure. Rising fifty feet high into the air, it had been painted brown to disguise its leaking seams.
“It’s filled with molasses,” Giuseppe explained. “Not for eating, but for the alcohol it makes. I don’t understand it myself, but it has something to do with ammunition for the war. All I know is that the tank is always leaking. Some of the children leave pails beneath it to take home the drippings to their families.”
“What a strange sight it is.”
“People in the neighborhood don’t like it. They say that it groans as if it might burst. I met a man from Naples who remembers when Vesuvius erupted. He says the tank makes the same rumble as the mountain made all those years ago.”
“I was just a girl when that happened,” said Violetta. “But I still remember the devastation—the way everyone was forced to start their lives over.”
Giuseppe cupped her cheeks in his hands. “Sometimes to begin again is the greatest gift we can receive.”
Day after day, to avoid being spotted, they met at that cold, unwelcoming place. While they listened to the moans of the molasses tank, Giuseppe would rub her frozen hands and whisper reassurances into her ear.
But as the wedding date grew closer, Violetta grew increasingly distraught. Enzo had intensified his advances. Even worse—he no longer felt any obligation to hide them from his other employees. “She’ll be my wife in a few days,” he boasted, pulling her tightly toward him. “Soon, she won’t be able to say no to me.”
As she pulled away, she tried to make excuses without triggering Enzo’s temper. “You know I must finish my work,” she said sweetly. “You don’t want your customers to be disappointed.”
“True,” he said, relaxing his grip. “But you will have to teach one of the other girls soon. In a few years, we’ll have too many children for you to have time for your little marzipan treats.”
He said it as if her work meant nothing, as if her talent was his to deny. Just when she had finally proved herself, he was forcing another test upon her. How would he react if she did not become pregnant? And what terrible test would come after that?
Two days before the ceremony, Giuseppe found her before she had reached the beach. He’d caught up to her on Foster Street, as she was walking to their meeting place. “I could not wait to tell you,” he said, his eyes ablaze with fresh hope. “The statue, finally, is ready, and Signore Lavezzello will pay me tomorrow.” Relief washed over Violetta like a wave. Giuseppe swept her into his arms and kissed her with such fervor that she could have sworn she felt the cobblestones shudder beneath her feet.
Outside her body, she was dimly aware of a loud and ominous roar. From an overhead window, people were shouting. Hand in hand, she and Giuseppe ran to the end of Foster Street and stared down to the beach to where the molasses tank was erupting.
The surge of syrup from the tank knocked the firehouse off its foundation. The molasses flood hurled a truck into the harbor and tossed carts and horses into the air. Those unlucky enough to be caught in its path were buried beneath the lava-like rush. The more fortunate fled or were flung to places of relative safety. Giuseppe and Violetta watched from a safe distance as a tide of molasses crept toward their feet.
When it was over, the streets were flooded with goo for half a mile in all directions, and a sickly-sweet stench pervaded the air. Screams and sobs, panic, incredulity – Violetta could not make sense of what she had seen. Frightened survivors pushed their way past them, and the lovers were carried away from the terrible mess by the crowd.
They moved forward in silence, dazed by the tragedy, until they had left the North End behind. South and west, they walked and walked. When they were too tired to take another step, Violetta turned to Giuseppe. The devastation had made their path forward clear. She would not return to the bakery or even to her uncle’s apartment. There was no need to collect her belongings. All that mattered was that they were safe. The disaster had released them both from everything that came before.
“We can never go back,” she said resolutely.
“Yes, but what will we do?”
She did not hesitate before answering. “You will keep your promise to your grandfather, and the two of us will go to Rome.”
At the train station, they showed the ticket agent their filthy, molasses-filled boots. He had heard rumors of the tank explosion from the newsboys passing by.
“My wife is in shock,” Giuseppe fibbed. After he described more of what they had seen, the sympathetic agent wiped tears from his eyes. “Take these,” he said, handing them free tickets. “Get your wife home to her family.”
From Boston, they took a train to New York, where Signore Lavezzello wired Giuseppe’s payment. The funeral director informed the sculptor that one of Enzo’s customers had spotted the lovers on their last walk together, the day of the explosion. Everyone assumed they had been killed, but only Enzo refused to pray for their souls. “If they were together, they betrayed me,” he declared. “But since they are dead, and I am alive, clearly, the good Lord took my side.” Signore Lavezzello pledged to Giuseppe that he would never divulge the truth.
Three months later, they arrived in Rome with one small suitcase between the two of them. Tucked in the bottom of the case was a faded newspaper clipping: Death and Devastation in Wake of North End Disaster: Fifty Injured, Eleven Dead, with Many More Missing and Presumed Gone.
With the help of a letter from Signore Lavezzello, both of them found positions in a prominent sculptor’s studio. When they weren’t at work, they were walking the city, climbing its hills and sketching the statues. The early evening light on the marble fountains looked like something from their dreams.
Eventually, they had a studio of their own—a workshop where the slabs of marble and alabaster were sweeter than any bakery creation.
Decades later, when tourists visited the studio of the highly distinguished, talented couple, they often asked whether either of the pair had ever fashioned a sculpture of the other.
Their answer was always the same.
“We have no need for such an exercise,” Violetta would say. “When you truly love another person, your memory is like a block of marble. Every day you spend together carves a mark upon your mind, so that when that person leaves this world, a perfect replica remains.”
Giuseppe would nod in agreement. “There has never been a sculptor born who could make a greater likeness of my wife than the one I carry in my heart. Michelangelo himself could not carve a greater masterpiece.”
Next week on Heartbeat, get ready for a short story from Mara Mindell.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Mara’s story!
Three quick things from Hannah:
I went to two book signings last week for The American Roommate Experiment by Elena Armas and The Most Likely Club by Elyssa Friedland. I love being back at book parties!
After seeing Elin Hilderbrand’s Instagram pics of her writing in legal pads poolside and at the beach, I switched to writing longhand, too. I love having the freedom to write without being tethered to my laptop. I spoke to Huff Post about my favorite notebook to write in.
I’m curious — do you use a system to track what you’ve read or your TBR? I have a spreadsheet of books I’ve already read and an iPhone Note listing books I’d like to get my hands on. What about you?