A mother and daughter clash as they try to make a new life in 1900s America.
It is hard to say what this novel is trying to be: A coming-of-age story? A coming-to-America tale? A chant of justice, or a song of madness? In 1904 Naples, Italy, narrator Lucia Esposito is 14, the product of a rape that also left her mother, Teresa, sullen and prone to fits of anger. They live and work together as maids for a countess who enjoys Lucia’s reading and Teresa’s singing voice. But when the countess’ stock villain of a husband tries to correct Teresa’s difficult behavior with torturous “methods,” she and Lucia flee to America and take up residence in Cleveland. Teresa gets a job dipping chocolates to subsidize Lucia’s dream of graduating from high school, but like many immigrants of the time, they barely scrape by. And though Teresa’s work conditions are better than those of the many garment workers in the city, her boss’s advances incite her rage to an unsustainable degree. She quits and joins a touring vaudeville act as the Naples Nightingale, hoping it will make her happier, despite the less-than-promising road life. Lucia graduates from high school and enjoys a brief stint in college, but her mother’s predictable mental health collapse forces her to return to Cleveland to be her caretaker. The most promising thread of the novel picks up here, as Lucia becomes an advocate for the ladies' garment worker's union and helps organize the 1911 general strike. Doing so while caring for a catatonic mother has its disadvantages, though, and Lucia struggles against this role with unfortunate results. Her frustrations are understandable, but Schoenewaldt’s brush strokes are too broad to paint Lucia in a nuanced or particularly sympathetic light. Exposition in general is clunky, and opportunities for describing the era in greater detail are frequently glossed over. A gift of a pineapple from Lucia’s love interest goes by with hardly a mention. Whether Lucia had ever seen one before, we’ll never know.
Most successful as a primer on turn-of-the-century work conditions and union efforts.