Melissa Hardy’s hilarious novel, The Oracle of Cumae, is set up as a story, within a story, within a story, and sometimes within yet another story. It begins with a very old woman sending for a priest. She doesn’t want to confess. Mariuccia Umbellino is very clear about that. She just wants to tell her story before she passes away. Her story is later transcribed, a generation or so later, by a woman who tells us she doesn’t believe a word of it.
Before Mariuccia became the 99-year-old matriarch of the Bacigalupo clan and business, she was a young girl from the mountains of central Italy. Her family raised goats and harvested olives. They had a good life, considering they never really left their mountain. Part of their good luck came from the fact that the ancient Oracle of Cumae (yep, still alive) fled to their mountain caves over a millennia ago. The Cumaean Sibyl dispenses advice and wisdom to the women of the mountain, though it doesn’t always work out the way it should.
Mariuccia’s comedy of errors begins when a cranky priest and a pompous merchant show up at their farm, with orders from the pope to dynamite the Sybil’s cave and exorcise the elderly oracle. Of course, the family and the villagers can’t allow this…but Mariuccia’s mother also sees the arrival of outsiders to marry off her eldest daughter, Mariuccia’s sister. And that’s where things start to go sideways. Terribly and hilariously sideways.
The Oracle of Cumae is one of the funniest, most unexpected book I’ve read in a long time. If you’re looking for a bit of goofiness with a wonderfuly down-to-earth protagonist, I strongly recommend this book. I read it yesterday afternoon and I’m still grinning.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.