UMBERTINA by Helen Barolini


Email this review


A female heritage of strength and courage moves through three generations of Italian-American culture-crossings--in a longwinded Saga enlivened by baldly evocative scenery, glitter from Italy's partying Beautiful People, and a gritty immigrant's tale. That initial immigrant is Umbertina, a stolid peasant from the sour, starved, feudal land of Calabria who comes with her gentle husband to America in the 1860s: she endures the hardships of passage, the debilitating poverty of the crowded Manhattan Italian ghetto (one child dies); and, through years of risk, struggle, and accelerating hope, she finally achieves, in upstate New York, all she has wanted--seven secure children, healthy grandchildren, a fine home, and a thriving business. ""What America stood for was that she and her husband could go to a bank that looked like a temple and not be treated like animals but be received, seated, and given a mortgage based on their hard work and thrift."" But Umbertina's strength seems to become diluted in later, ocean-crossing generations. Grandchild Marguerite marries scholarly, considerate, older poet Alberto from an ancient Venetian family; he loves her enough to sanction her eccentricities, compassionately cosseting her ""sickness,"" but Marguerite is searching for her creative self (apparently not a reality to either her Italian or American family) and is killed in a car crash en route to her lover. And great-grandchild Tina will also search for a permanent identity in a journey across Italy, finding and discarding American Jason (she fears the loss of both their freedoms), visiting Umbertina's Calabria, finally accepting the need for a solid base of family, a firm ""positioning"" on life. The psyche-readings of Marguerite and Tina become a bit windy--a whole sophomore year of inner bull sessions--but Umbertina's travails are ruggedly convincing; and scenic sparklers illuminate a romantic's Roma, the traveler's dream of Italy. Evergreen, Italianstyle, with just a bit too much trendy angst for cozy-reading comfort.

Pub Date: Nov. 19th, 1979
Publisher: Seaview--dist. by Harper & Row