A CLOUD ON SAND by Gabriella De Ferrari, New York: Knopf, 324 pp., $19.95 A HASTY plot summary might well leave the impression that this unusual first novel is either a South American version of a North American saga about an immigrant family or an Italian-style ``Mommie Dearest.'' It is, to some extent, a story about the challenge and disorientation of moving from the Old World to the New; and, to an even greater extent, the story of a domineering mother and a daughter who manages to break free from her powerful influence. But Gabriella De Ferrari has adopted neither the hackneyed plot of the standard family saga nor the searing style of the tell-all confessional in this coolly elegant novel, which is finally all the more moving for its lack of fireworks.
Donna Dora, the formidable mother of Marco and Antonia, is anything but maternal. She escaped her impoverished background by marrying a rich man, who planned to take her to Buenos Aires, where he made his fortune. But when the ship was about to dock, the imperious, pregnant Dora insisted she would not have her child on alien soil, and returned to her native village in Italy, where she had a mansion built on the site of her parents' old cottage.
Neither beautiful nor intelligent nor charming, Dora nonetheless possesses a mysterious capacity to attract men: first, when her husband is away on business in South America, where he spends most of his time, and later, after her husband's death. Her attractiveness has something to do with the way she moves, the strikingly original way she dresses, and the sheer forcefulness of her personality. Hardheaded, obdurate, self-willed, she is a kind of monster.
``Remember what it means to be a woman,'' she advises her daughter Antonia. ``It's the men ... who have to do the work. We can arrange our lives so that we can get what we want by using these things about women that men don't understand. Don't forget that. The man builds the house, but the woman dreams it to life.''
Most of the time, however, she is not this encouraging toward her daughter, whom she usually berates for being ugly and thick-ankled. Antonia and Marco are neglected children, except for the occasions when their kindly father returns from Buenos Aires and Dora flings herself uncharacteristically, yet wholeheartedly, into the role of perfect wife and mother. The only bright spot of their childhood is the gentle art connoisseur Count Mora, one of their mother's admirers, who is touched by the children's plight and resolves to take care of them.
The children grow up in the 1920s and 1930s, against the disturbing, subtly evoked background of Italy's turn to Fascism. While Dora's brother Roberto is a committed leftist, Dora herself has no qualms about ingratiating herself with whomever is in power, from fascists and Nazi occupiers to American liberators. People suspect her of betraying her brother and his resistance group. Yet, when the black American sergeant whom she later consorts with gets into trouble for purportedly ``fraternizing'' with a white woman, Dora boldly - and rather selflessly - comes to his defense by dressing up as a pathetic old crone, for whom the young soldier could only have felt pity.
Antonia is often moved to wonder if her mother is good or evil. Certainly, she is not good. But is she evil, or merely a monster - a sort of horrific, yet impressive freak of nature? And, is Dora really the most intriguing character, the true center of this story, or is it Antonia, whose quiet beauty and untapped resourcefulness win her the love of a good man much like her father, who has also made his fortune in South America? Antonia, unlike her mother, is willing to leave Italy for South America - in this case, for a land even more remote than Argentina, which De Ferrari calls ``Yayaku'' and locates on the Pacific Coast somewhere between Chile and Peru. Where Dora defied convention and shocked her neighbors with her aggression and ostentation, Antonia's disregard for convention is based on her innate dignity. Where the mother was shrewd, the daughter has learned to be wise.
De Ferrari's novel shows an eye for the idiosyncrasies of characters and the oddities of fate, as well as a subtle understanding of the patterns in people's lives and the surprising turns that cannot be reduced to pattern.