A fictionalized portrait of the author’s heroic young ancestors, immigrants to America from Italy.
The hardscrabble journey of two immigrants to Ellis Island from Naples in 1903 form the backbone of Italian novelist Mazzucco’s long-winded tale: the not-yet-12-year-old boy called Diamante and his nine-year-old cousin Vita, disgorged along with 2,000 other passengers from the Republic, and summoned to the Prince Street boarding house owned by Vita’s grocer father, Agnello, to work. There is little enjoyment of childhood for these Little Italy immigrants: Vita helps Agnello’s American Circassian mistress, Lena, cook and clean for the boarders (Agnello has a wife back in Tufo), while Diamante has to prove how tough he is by doing dangerous odd jobs such as robbing graves for the suave thuggish boarder, Rocco, who becomes a successful Mafia head. Vita and Diamante swear eternal love for each other, though fate tears them apart when Diamante must leave for work in Ohio, and delinquent Vita is sent to reform school for three years, the only education she’ll have. Eventually, she ends up working in the Ansonia Hotel kitchen, marries Rocco (who’s already married), then another boarder, before starting up a notable restaurant of her own. Diamante, meanwhile, is crushed by her disloyalty and disillusioned with the miserable lot thrown at uneducated and underpaid Italians like him. Alternate chapters weave in nonfiction elements, with Mazzucco recounting her search for the facts of her grandfather’s story.
Winner in 2003 of Italy’s Strega Prize, this teeming, nostalgic tale should find willing American readers.