Having finally seen and fallen in love with The Godfather, I decided I should go back to Mario Puzo’s original novel of the same name, the pulp classic that became a masterpiece. I’d been told that there’s a lot more in the book about Hollywood, which there is, and which remains a relevant critique of that city’s sexual culture today. But I was mostly curious as to whether Puzo had more to say about the women who hover outside of the doors who are shut in their faces by the Corleone men.
He does, but The Godfather remains an odd book when it comes to women, and is odd in a number of different ways. The size of Sonny Corleone’s penis comes up more often than his mother’s actual first name. Apollonia, Michael’s first, Italian wife is an utter blank, an expanse of “satiny skin” for Michael to consume, and to imprint with English and driving lessons. It remains utterly inexplicable to me why Kay Adams ultimately decides to take Michael Corleone back, much less to marry him, after he not only disappears on her without notice, but after he returns, as Mama Corleone puts it, for six months “He no call you up? He no see you?” Her decision to follow consigliere Tom Hagen in abandoning her own ethnic and class background to become a compliant Italian wife, quashing her concerns about Michael’s affairs and saying Masses for his souls every morning, is a compelling counter to the assimilation the Don hoped his son would achieve: Michael doesn’t just fail to break away from his Italianness, he brings Kay back with him. But there’s a fundamental gap in her story. And Connie Corleone never gets to be anything other than a shrew, until the moment at the end of the novel, as well as the film, when in her hysteria, she accuses Michael of murdering her husband Carlo, and gets dismissed as crazed by grief even though she’s absolutely correct.
The one woman who does make it out—or at least, who finds a way to live in the Corleone family orbit without being compromised by it—is Lucy Mancini, whose story is essentially a massive red herring, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Johnny Fatone’s Vocal Cord Surgery. Puzo does precisely no work to grow real thematic connective tissue between Lucy’s story and the rest of the novel, which is strange, because after Kay, she’s the woman on which the novel spends the most introspective time. And she’s also, frankly, a character with an arc I’m surprised Puzo dreamed up, given the treatment of the other women in the novel, and their position as profoundly mysterious creatures, particularly when it comes to sexual desire.
Lucy enters the novel as Connie’s maid of honor at her wedding, a position that’s given Lucy the opportunity to seduce Connie’s older brother, Sonny. He’s attractive to her in part because of what she’s been told about her body and its lack of desirability: “In her two college love affairs she had felt nothing and neither of them lasted more than a week. Quarreling, her second lover had mumbled something about her being ‘too big down there.’ Lucy had understood and for the rest of the school term had refused to go out on any dates.” Sonny, because he’s well-endowed, doesn’t treat Lucy like she’s sexually inadequate. And alone among the women in The Godfather, Lucy’s opened up to the possibility of an affair that’s solely about her own sexual fulfillment, without being treated like a slut, either by Sonny, or anyone else in the Corleone orbit. When Sonny dies, “her dreams were not the insipid dreams of a schoolgirl, her longings not the longings of a devoted wife. She was not rendered desolate by the loss of her ‘life’s companion,’ or miss him because of his stalwart character. She held no fond remembrances of sentimental gifts, of girlish hero worship, his smile, the amused glint of his eyes when she said something endearing or witty. No. She missed him for the more important reason that he had been the only man in the world who could make her body achieve the act of love.”
When Lucy moves to Las Vegas, she meets Jules, a doctor who came to the city after his work providing abortions got him run out of polite society. And she eventually learns that the reason she was sexually shamed and dismissed in college is medical. After she finally goes to bed with Jules, he tells her:
Now let me tell you what your problem is: it’s not the equivalent of being ugly, of having bad skin and squinty eyes that facial surgery really doesn’t solve. Your problem is like having a wart or a mole on your chin, or an improperly formed ear. Stop thinking of it in sexual terms. Stop thinking in your head that you have a big box no man can love because it won’t give his penis the necessary friction. What you have is a pelvic malformation and what we surgeons call a weakening of the pelvic floor. It usually comes after child-bearing but it can be simply bad bone structure. It’s a common condition and many women live a life of misery because of it when a simple operation could fix them up. Some women even commit suicide because of it. But I never figured you for that condition because you have such a beautiful body. I thought it was psychological, since I know your story, you told it to me often enough, you and Sonny. But let me give you a thorough physical examination and I can tell you just exactly how much work will have to be done.
Every other man in the novel treats women’s sexual desire as if it’s a pleasant surprise. Kay is more sexual than Michael’s experience with the women in his orbit would have lead him to suggest. He and Apollonia experience marital passion, at least from Michael’s perspective, but Puzo has absolutely no interest in how Apollonia feels about sex (or really about much of anything). Lucy’s experience is a consequence of that kind of disinterest towards—or even disgust when it comes to the subject of—women’s experience of sex, except as it affects their availability to men. And even though Jules can be condescending to Lucy in a way that might come across as mansplain-y, it’s striking to see him both want her, and want her to be healthier and sexually happier. That’s more than Kay, or Connie, or Mama Corleone get, not to mention points on the back end in Vegas.