Growing up Italian in the Midwest.
Imagine an enormous stack of postcards. Reading Giordano’s debut, the first in a trilogy, is like working your way through the stack, absorbing every new bit, often garnished with English or Italian exclamations. It’s 1946, and narrator ChiChi Maggiordino is a little girl in a peasant family on a mountainside above Naples when her mother gives birth to her half-brother Marco. ChiChi adores the sickly Marco, and that’s just as well, for her 18-year-old Mamma has withdrawn into a stony silence; the newborn is illegitimate. Her spirits revive when her American serviceman husband, now in Germany, arranges her passage to America. But when Mamma, Marco, ChiChi, and her beloved grandmother Nonna arrive in Minnesota, husband Bruno’s parents send them packing. They endure a freezing winter in a shack by the Mississippi before moving to an Italian section of Minneapolis. Mamma continues to brood; Nonna, life of the party, dies of pneumonia; Marco, with chronic lung disease, looks like a goner. Then things look up. Mamma is hired to sing at a restaurant and takes a succession of lovers, five and counting. ChiChi’s dark skin draws ethnic slurs, so she turns scrappy. She practices the Evil Eye (a constant refrain), then fights back with fists, teeth, and spit (plenty of spit). When one of Mamma’s lovers molests ChiChi, she stabs him. She also develops a talent as dancer and clown, encouraged by two dwarfs, circus performers and dignified old pros, a welcome respite from the domestic brawling. What ChiChi can’t handle is Marco’s growing away from her; she’s awash in unexamined emotion. She loathes Marco’s best buddy Ed and his girlfriends. As for his wedding: “How could I witness my brother pledge his troth in the church we sat in as children and swore we’d never ever leave each other?” Fortunately, the call from the New York talent scout comes right on cue: ChiChi heads east with a knife on her belt.
A lumpy mass of family misadventures with a sour aftertaste.