Italian Americans in the 20th Century

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna Juliet Grames (2019)


Fair warning:  Most of the men in this novel are brutes. Even the ones who are polite at the dinner table, who bring lovely gifts, and who work hard to support their families still tyrannize women outrageously. The worst of these men is a pervert who engages in criminal sexual activities, but there are gradations of nastiness—sexual, economic, and emotional.

So the women are the stars—especially Stella Fortuna, whose name, as the novelist tells us, actually means “‘star luck’ or maybe even ‘lucky star’.” (4) Stella is beautiful and smart, exceling at computation and at needlework although she’s functionally illiterate. But Stella’s most defining characteristics reside in her personality. She’s argumentative and honest and independent—whoa, is she independent. For a young woman with such a streak of self-sufficiency, it’s not an easy life in Ievoli, a small Calabrian mountain village in the early twentieth century. The rural women of Ievoli are workhorses and baby breeders, performing heavy labor until they go into heavy labor. Most of them submit unquestioningly to their domineering husbands. In these early sections of the novel there are touches of magic realism that some reviewers have found jarring. I thought the magic realism fit perfectly with the Italian Catholicism of the era, its rosaries and religious processions coexisting with charms to ward off the Evil Eye.

Just before World War II, the Fortuna family emigrates to Hartford, Connecticut, against the will of Stella’s mother. Does life get easier? Well, by boarding that ship they do miss the worst of the reign of Mussolini and the wartime marauding of Nazi soldiers. But in America Stella has a battle on her hands to stay single, as she has vowed to do, having figured out about the brutishness of those males. Though life in Ievoli afforded few material comforts, at least the inhabitants were surrounded by stunning natural beauty, which is woefully lacking in the slums of Hartford. Stella daydreams: “She pictured Ievoli, the glowing yellow-green of the citrus leaves in the April sun, the silver-blue of the September olive groves, the sun-baked July rows of bulging tomato stakes marching like soldiers along the terraced mountain.” (328)

The entire novel is framed from the viewpoint of the present day, when Stella is 100 years old. The narrator, a descendant of the Fortuna clan, gets the stories of all of Stella’s close brushes with death from Stella’s sister, Concettina, (“Cettina” in Italy and “Tina” in America). In an Author’s Note, Juliet Grames mentions that memories of her own elderly relatives inspired components of Stella’s life, and I found myself wondering which parts of the novel correspond with Grames’ own family history.

The boisterous, dramatic, hard-partying Italian Americans in The Seven or Eight Deaths are not stereotypes but rather fully realized characters, some saints but many sinners. Every immigrant family (and the vast majority of Americans come from one) has similar characters. Grames has captured the immigrant experience magnificently, using the anticipatory device of the “deaths” to get me to read late into the night to find out how Stella survived yet again. Brava!

For another story about Italian Americans, find a DVD of the classic 1987 movie Moonstruck. And for more of my reviews of books about immigrants, click on “Immigrant Stories” in the column to the right.

Historical Drama in Tuscany

The Tuscan Child     Rhys Bowen     (2018)

Rhys Bowen knows how to write a mystery, having penned dozens of them for her three series—the Constable Evans, Molly Murphy, and Royal Spyness Mysteries. In The Tuscan Child, a standalone novel, she tucks several mysteries into a package that also holds its own as a historical novel.  

The story shifts between 1944-45 and 1973 in alternating chapters. In the World War II sequences, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley lies badly wounded near the fictional village of San Salvatore in Nazi-held Tuscany, tended for many weeks by the kindly Sofia Bartoli. He hides in the ruins of a monastery as he gains strength and tries to plan an escape to the south, where there are Allied forces. 

Readers know that Hugo survives the war, because decades later, Hugo’s daughter, Joanna, is sorting out her father’s belongings after his sudden death near the family’s former estate in England. When Joanna finds a letter, returned as undeliverable, that Hugo wrote to Sofia after the war, she decides to travel to Tuscany herself to unravel the secrets of Hugo’s war service. Tangled in with these two stories are the unknown activities of the Nazi soldiers and of the Tuscan resistance during World War II, the business dealings of a wealthy landowner in San Salvatore, and a surprise murder. In 1973, World War II was still fresh in the memories of the European civilians who survived devastating conflict in their countryside, but they may choose to forget. 

Italian cuisine provides a mouthwatering backdrop to the Tuscan adventures. Raised on English food (think sausage rolls and Yorkshire pudding), Joanna has her taste buds awakened by basil and squash blossoms and homemade pasta and fresh-picked tomatoes. Even Hugo, during the severe privations of the war, learns to love flavorful Tuscan bean soup. Culinary delights prime the characters for amorous adventures.

With brisk dialogue and well-sketched protagonists, novelist Bowen kept me racing through the chapters to find out the fate of that Tuscan child and the resolution of all the other mysteries.

Adventures in 1956 Italy

The Italian Party     Christina Lynch     (2018)

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Welcome to Siena, Italy, in the year 1956, when the Italians have regrouped after the destruction and privations of World War II. Rolling into this magnificent Tuscan city are the newlywed Americans Michael and Scottie Messina, in a brand new Ford Fairlane. (Good Lord, how much it must have cost to ship that behemoth for them!) Michael has a job selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, whom he must convert from their traditional agrarian practices. Scottie will be the model housewife, supporting him.

Italy is a major character here, as Scottie meets the locals and comes to adore the small shops, the camaraderie, and even the gossip. “Everything about it fascinated her—the way food was revered, treasured rather than seen as an inconvenience to be packaged in a way that made it as easy as possible to prepare and consume. Nothing in Italy was ‘instant’ or ‘new and improved.’” (86) An excellent aural learner, Scottie quickly learns to speak Italian. “Here in Italy she felt like a different person altogether—more expressive, more curious, more open.” (58)

Michael, on the other hand, sees Italy as backward, greatly in need of an infusion of American-style mechanization and democracy. And he has a view of his new wife that was common in the 1950s: "She had no mission other than to keep house for him. He envied her naïveté, her unsullied innocence, her lack of secrets. She was the American ideal he was sent there to promote. She was like Dale Evans, he thought: a beautiful, pure, faithful, true cowgirl. She was the only one not there with an ulterior motive.” (55)

Well, not so much. Little by little, the sunny picture darkens as we learn that many secrets lie beneath the surface of this marriage and of this sojourn in Italy. I won’t spoil the revelations for you, but you can know that treacherous international espionage is involved. Still, the sun shines a lot in Siena, and novelist Christina Lynch keeps us bubbling along with glorious meals of pasta and prosciutto and panini and Prosecco. As one character tells Michael, “‘The world is your oyster, my boy. You should suck it down in one gulp and be happy. A beautiful wife, a good job, and an Italian assignment . . . Life here is a party. Join the fun.’” (265)

Yes, this is an Italian party. The title of the novel is certainly referring to the glamorous lifestyle that Scottie and Michael can afford to live in Italy. But it also refers to the political parties that the plot revolves around, and even to the representation of Italy globally. Lynch sets up the view of American exceptionalism that dominated the Cold War era, and then she pokes at its underpinnings, especially through Scottie’s love of Italy. Yet even Scottie relies on a multitude of American beauty products to put together her stunning appearance. In a scene describing Scottie’s daily beauty routine, Lynch itemizes Helene Curtis Spray Net, Lady Gillette razors, Peggy Sage Spice Pink nail polish, Revlon Creamy Ivory liquid foundation, Michel flesh-colored powder, Max Factor eye shadow, Maybelline mascara, Coty Dahlia Pink creamy lipstick, Joy by Jean Patou eau de toilette, Taylor-Woods fifty-four-gauge stockings, and Warner’s garters. (182-3)

The Italian Party is as effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly in streetside cafés. The tone is similar to that of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, another frothy confection with seriousness underlying its brisk plot. I highly recommend both novels.

Ties that Bind

Ties     Domenico Starnone     (in Italian, 2014)

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri     (in English, 2016)


The marriage of Vanda and Aldo is the centerpiece of Ties, and novelist Domenico Starnone offers us multiple perspectives on that relationship without coming to any definitive conclusions about it. First, we have the texts of letters that Vanda wrote to Aldo in the 1970s, when he left her and their two young children to live with a much younger woman. Vanda rants and raves about Aldo’s departure, and her voice is totally believable. The next section of the novel is narrated by Aldo in the present day, some forty years later, with glances back to earlier phases of his life. In the final section, we hear from Vanda and Aldo’s adult daughter, Anna, who recounts conversations with her brother, Sandro, in the present day. As readers, we have to assess the reliability of these differing viewpoints, with their differing views of the marriage of Vanda and Aldo.

Aldo, speaking as an elderly man, tells us, “At my age, it’s easy to turn a suspicion into a valid hypothesis, a valid hypothesis into an absolute certainty, an absolute certainty into an obsession.” (114) This could be a warning for the reader of Ties: watch what you accept from the narrators, from Vanda and Aldo and Anna. All is not as it seems, and pure truth is elusive.

In her translator’s introduction to Ties, Jhumpa Lahiri, herself an accomplished author of fiction, writes about the complexity of Starnone’s themes: “The entire structure of this novel, in fact, seems to me a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next. There is no hole in the construction, no fissure.” (12)

There are physical boxes in Ties, including the “box” that is the apartment in Rome where Vanda and Aldo live. On a shelf in that apartment is a shiny blue decorative cube that Aldo bought in Prague. It has a hidden compartment that holds secrets. Other boxes turn up, such as the box that contains a medical device for Vanda. Starnone also seems to point to metaphorical boxes that people construct around themselves, such as marriage, family, job.

The cover of Ties has a picture, which you can see in the inset to this review, of tangled shoelaces on the shoes that a man is wearing. The drawing, selected by the author, points to another major metaphor of the novel: the ties between people. For instance, speaking to Sandro, Anna comments, “The only ties that counted for our parents were the ones they’ve tortured each other with their whole lives.” (135)

Our translator tells us that the Italian title for this novel, Lacci, is literally “shoelaces” but also has the connotation of “a means of bridling, of capturing something.” (17) Most literally, the title connects to the unconventional way that Aldo ties his shoelaces. Aldo taught his son, Sandro, to tie shoelaces in this way when Sandro was very young. Anna has always noticed this, and she comments, “It’s true, only the two of you tie your shoes like that.” (98)  Perhaps, like shoelaces, some of the ties between people are universal and others are unique.

I caught a few typos, but Lahiri’s translation is sparkling—idiomatic and accessible, unlike translations of some other Italian novels that I’ve tried. I don’t want to wade into the controversy about how autobiographical Ties might be. Domenico Starnone is married to Anita Raja, who is allegedly the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, the author of the four-volume Neapolitan Novels that are wildly popular all over the world. Like Starnone, Ferrante treats issues of marital infidelity and of the ties that bind families and friends together. But Starnone’s Ties stands on its own and is a delight to read.

Books in Brief, Part 3

If you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know that I devote full reviews to only a small number of the books that pass through my hands each week. Here are three novels that I abandoned after a few chapters or just skimmed through. They may have qualities that engage you more!

In the Name of the Family     Sarah Dunant     (2016)

You’d think that the inclusion of the famously conniving historical characters Niccolò Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia would spark up this novel, but I found the 40 pages that I read to be lackluster. I’ve liked other Sarah Dunant novels set in the Italian Renaissance (eg, The Birth of Venus), so perhaps with In the Name of the Family Dunant is trying too hard to redeem the reputation of Lucrezia. Or perhaps I’m weary of the slimy Borgia brood and their confederates from too many books and television series.



My Italian Bulldozer     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

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I’m a big fan of several of McCall Smith’s series of novels, especially the 44 Scotland Street Series, which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Sadly, McCall Smith’s stand-alone novels tend to be weaker narratively. My Italian Bulldozer is a lightweight romance/comedy, in which the main character is forced to accept a rental bulldozer instead of a rental car on a business trip to Montalcino, Italy. McCall Smith can usually pull off ridiculous plot twists, but this one didn’t work for me.



Six Four     Hideo Yokoyama     (2012/2016)  translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

The international bestseller from Japan is finally available in an excellent (British) English translation. The central character of this police procedural murder mystery is Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective who now heads media relations for the police. The title refers to the year of the emperor’s reign when a notorious child-murder occurred. In addition to solving this cold case, dealing with the press, and fighting police corruption, Mikami is dealing with the disappearance of his teen daughter. The insights into Japanese culture are fascinating, and the extended dialogue is well done. But I just skimmed this one, simply because I don’t care for police procedurals. If you do, Six Four is a winner.

Family Sagas: Three Reviews

Review #1

Commonwealth     Ann Patchett (2016)

I can accord all the usual accolades to Patchett, who deftly spins a saga covering fifty years of a family that she admits is somewhat like her own—it doesn’t matter exactly how much. Commonwealth is a set of interconnected novelettes about the affairs, divorces, and remarriages of the older generation and the resultant dysfunctions visited upon them and their children in California and Virginia. The characters are wonderfully crafted, the scene-setting is vivid, and the pacing is energetic. But there’s a serious flaw in this book that I simply cannot get past (spoiler coming). One character, who has a clearly known allergy, dies from anaphylaxis. Patchett repeatedly presents Benedryl tablets as the antidote that the character should have ingested, possibly because these tablets have other roles in her story. In fact, the death could have been prevented only if epinephrine (in an EpiPen) had been administered quickly. This is not a footnote in the novel but rather a defining event. Is Commonwealth still worth reading? Yup. But I’ve warned you.

Review #2

The Turner House     Angela Flournoy (2015)

For a comprehensive examination of the decline of the great city of Detroit, read the classic nonfiction text, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue. For an intimate portrayal of the effects of that crisis, read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I’m pretty familiar with Detroit. Flournoy has captured the city in its gritty bleakness of the early 2000s as well as, through flashbacks, in its manufacturing glory of the mid-twentieth century. Her angle in is the varying fortunes of the African American Turner family, with thirteen children who were born in the better days and are aging in the dying urban landscape. Although the cast of characters is huge, Flournoy keeps the plot manageable by developing primarily the stories of the oldest and youngest of this clan. The house that the Turners grew up in is depicted lovingly, as an organism in decline. The Turners are African Americans, but The Turner House is about working class Detroiters of any race or ethnicity who are trying to maintain family bonds through tough times.

Review #3

The House at the Edge of Night     Catherine Banner (2016)

Like Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest, Catherine Banner’s island of Castellamare is a tiny Mediterranean refuge for shipwrecked souls, a place of implausible coincidences and occasional magic. Banner follows a family on Castellamare throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting each section with a local legend that sets the tone for her archetypal, folkloric characters. The titular House at the Edge of Night is a bar and gathering place for the island community. Readers watch as the succeeding generations of Amadeo Esposito’s family take on the management of the bar, through periods of prosperity and depression, war in the surrounding world, and conflict in the village. Although the novel has a dreamlike, wistful quality, Banner treats serious issues such as clan loyalty, sibling discord, political clashes, and the rival demands of career and family.