Let’s get this out of the way early: Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria does in fact feature a unicorn. However, looking at it as a sequel to The Last Unicorn is a mistake. There are no Schmendricks here, and the world of In Calabria has an earthiness to it that doesn’t sit well next to the fairy tale lightness of The Last Unicorn.
Rather, one can look at the book as a companion piece to Beagle’s Summerlong, a bookend to the story that one tells. If Summerlong tells the story of a mature romance torn apart by the intrusion of the supernatural, In Calabria is a tale of a May-September romance that happens precisely because of the intrusion of the supernatural into everyday life. One door closes, another one opens, and the cycle goes on.
In Calabria focuses on one Claudio Bianchi, a 47 year old Italian farmer who lives alone with a small menagerie of animals and his famously grumpy temperament. His only real friend is the mailman, a chatty sort who knows Claudio’s secret: that he writes poetry.
And then everything changes when a unicorn comes to visit, or more accurately, to stay. Eventually Claudio figures out that the creature he calls La Signora is pregnant, and has chosen his farm as the place where she will give birth. Rather than capitalize on what some might view as good fortune, he resolves to help the unicorn any way he can, and to hide her from the world.
Perhaps this plan would have worked, except for the postman’s sister, Giovanna, who has taken over her brother’s route one day a week and who catches, entirely by accident, Bianchi with the unicorn. And what is their shared secret gets leaked to her brother, and from there to the world, and soon the world descends on Bianchi’s crumbling little farm. Reporters, gawkers, activists and hunters all tromp through Bianchi’s fields in search of a unicorn that simply does not want to be seen. Meanwhile, Giovanna and Claudio, despite the difference in their ages, have fallen into a relationship, and while the unicorn seekers are annoying, there is hope that eventually they will give up and go away.
Except one day, the head of the local organized crime syndicate comes by to ask Claudio to sell him the farm, and Claudio says no to a man you do not dare say no to. Suddenly, Claudio is a dead man walking, and everyone – from the villagers to Giovanna to the unicorns – starts reacting to Claudio’s brave, lunatic stance differently. And when the mobsters come for him, as they inevitably must, what happens is simultaneously a reaffirmation of his and Giovanna’s love and the nature of the power that until now has been content to quietly nibble at the shrubbery.
A quieter, softer book than Summerlong, In Calabria largely rests on the reader’s ability to sympathize with Giovanna and Claudio’s oddball romance. If the reader buys it, they’re free to explore the way in which the unicorn giving birth allows Claudio to excavate the layers of his pain, to watch the subtle changes in Claudio’s neighbors, to see the way in which Claudio’s relationship with his poetry – driven as much by Giovanna as by Signora – changes and blossoms. If not, then there may be some tough sledding ahead. Regardless, In Calabria is a lovingly crafted paean to redemption, the chamber music answer to the booming symphony of Summerlong.