Etto may be the only man in the seaside Italian town of San Benedetto who is not obsessed with soccer, or as the locals call it, calcio. While the 22-year-old’s father and twin brother Luca, a gifted player, are the family fanatics, Etto tends toward art, like his American mother, preferring museums to soccer fields.
When Luca dies in a motorcycle crash and his depressed mother shortly thereafter takes her own life, soccer feels like salt in the wound for Etto. But for Etto’s father, soccer is the one passion he has left. What is a unifying enthusiasm for the lively denizens of San Benedetto, population 5,621, becomes a wedge between father and son.
While soccer is the connective thread that runs through Brigid Pasulka’s new “The Sun and Other Stars,” this lovely, touching novel is about so much more. As Etto comes to understand: “Europeans make it seem as if calcio is a matter of life and death. . . . It’s much more important than that. It’s a matter of hope.”
The story unfolds in Etto’s voice, and through him, Pasulka sets a charmingly wry tone. Etto is the dutiful but slightly resentful son, working in his father’s butcher shop day after day, chafing against the strictures and slow pace of small-town life, yet not unaware of the rare generosity of spirit and community such closeness brings.
He also becomes the angry, grieving survivor, quietly mourning the loss of his mother and feeling as if he can never live up to the shining example set by his dead brother.
Etto’s world is turned upside down when he is befriended by Zhuki, the sister of one of his father’s beloved idols, Ukrainian soccer star Yuri Fil. Always fodder for the tabloids, Yuri and his colorful entourage (which includes his sexy wife, Tatiana, two young children, and warm-hearted bodyguards) sneak into San Benedetto to escape scandal-mongering paparazzi, renting a private villa on a hillside terrace.
Etto initially is sworn to secrecy about the soccer celebrity’s presence, forbidden even to tell his father. Eventually the whole town learns of the star in their midst and drifts into Yuri’s charismatic orbit. And soccer — not just watching, but playing — becomes a vehicle for communal rejuvenation. For Etto, who finally finds himself coming under soccer’s spell as he develops his own skills to keep up with the beautiful, talented Zhuki, the sport becomes a source of validation, transformation, and redemption.
Pasulka (“A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True”) seeds “The Sun and Other Stars” with stunning, elegantly rendered moments of insight, as when Etto examines a freighted silence with Zhuki. “The words we said are still teetering precariously on top of one another, and I think neither of us wants to be the one to pile on the wrong word and upset the balance.”
But in general, the story could use a little more narrative drive. The last section of the book is dominated by a local festival and World Cup soccer, and it lags in spots. However, I don’t think “The Sun and Other Stars” is meant to be a page turner. Read and savored slowly, it is akin to those long, hot summer days Pasulka so vividly captures. Full of light and surprising grace, it is both a poetic coming-of-age story and a poignant examination of the nature of family and belonging.