A graceful novel of an American family struggling to find identity and spiritual meaning in an age resistant—and even hostile—to their fumbling attempts.
Giardina takes us through the intricacies of the Palumbo family across three generations. We first meet Jack Palumbo at the age of eight, tormenting his younger sister Joan in the backseat of their parents’ car. (His mother’s first words about him are “ ‘I wish he’d be nicer,' " a wish the reader shares.) The novel ends 40 years later, with Jack confronting his failed marriage and Joan giving birth (at the age of 43) to a baby girl after having been a nun for most of her adult life. Their parents, Stella and Richie, have endured their own trials, though their married life began, like so many, with both hope and promise. The turning point in Stella and Richie’s life occurs when Richie falls in love with a house in Norumbega, Mass. Awkwardly, he ingratiates himself with the owners and makes an offer when the family matriarch dies. Because of Richie’s diminished prospects at work—a company that specializes in defense contracts during the Vietnam War—he opens a pizza parlor and tries to make his house a home. As a child Joan feels the tug of conventual life, while Jack, bright but lost, remains a disappointment to his father. Always attractive to women, Jack finds himself drawn to Christina Oakes while they’re both still in high school. Eventually they marry but begin to drift apart, Christina growing more and more emotionally removed both from Jack and from their children. Throughout doubts, arguments and infidelities, the Palumbos stumble toward grace and meaning.
This is a superb novel on every level, for Giardina fully fleshes out his characters as he scrutinizes their personal, family and social lives.