Rosa Rizzio and her friends take different paths to escape the poverty of New York City’s Lower East Side during the 1940s.
In 1942, Rosa Rizzio was a junior high dropout eager to start making money. Growing up during the Great Depression in a crowded, dirty cold-water tenement, she and her Italian-immigrant family lived through grinding poverty. In the time before President Roosevelt’s New Deal and free school lunches, her mother sometimes stole food just to give them one meal a day. Now, with a war raging and jobs plentiful, Rosa charts a path toward financial security that begins with a summer job waitressing then develops into work as a rumba instructor (she changes her name to Rose Rice). Eventually, by the age of 15, she finds herself becoming the pampered mistress of Sam Cohen, a married garment-industry millionaire. She’d prefer someone young, handsome and single—and also rich—but you can’t have everything. Over the years, one childhood friend marries and moves to Long Island; another goes to college; and still another, Ruthie, on the brink of respectable marriage, throws over her potential husband in order to pursue a richer man, with disastrous results. Rose’s hardheaded gold-digging isn’t that different from her mother’s attitude toward theft: “Her family had to eat somehow. They had to dress somehow. And they had to keep warm somehow. It is a question of survival.” No amount of low-wage work could ever earn her the gowns, jewels and high life she craves, Rose reasons. Her sugar daddy wants to pay, so why not let him? By her own lights, she’s a good friend: “When youse go out with Sam’s friends, don’t be ashamed to axk them for money. If youse don’t, they won’t give youse anything and you’ll wind up with nothen but jelly beans,” she advises Ruthie. The novel has its faults—substandard punctuation and grammar, spelling by ear (“Old Lang Zain,” “By Mir Mister Shane”), haphazardly shifting points of view, far too much unnecessary detail, and wandering timelines—but it is undeniably engaging, much like coming across an old diary. Seeing Rose walk step by step into the life of a kept woman is fascinating, and it’s impressive how well debut author Tarcici depicts the temptations of glamor. Rose’s choices are not unlike those made today by young men who want—for various reasons—to be players in the drug trade. Though her family may disapprove, Rose becomes their main breadwinner; they have to eat somehow. Mercenary and vulgar as Rose is, she has the pluck and the luck to get what she wants.
Vivid period details and a forthright heroine help smooth the rough edges of this rags-to-riches story.