Three generations of an Italian-American family strive to assimilate in a lovingly imagined collection of linked stories.
Romano (When the World Was Young, 2007) focuses on the Comingo family, which arrives in Chicago shortly after World War II. Underachieving patriarch Fabio manages a barbershop with a dearth of customers. Headstrong mother Lucia offers heaping helpings of both food and no-nonsense wisdom, including the axiom that provides the book’s title. Son Giacomo is eager to escape his heritage; older brother Michelino proudly embraces it. Each family member speaks in the first person, a decision that could have produced clichéd, stereotypical prose. A pair of stories told in Lucia’s pidgin English do shade too far in that direction (“I no understand America. Is crazy”). But the author’s depth of feeling for his characters, combined with his ability to follow their subtle transformations through the decades, is affecting. The best-drawn character is Giacomo, or Jim (Americanization of names is a running theme). We follow him from after-school jobs to revelations about his mother to adulthood as a father and counselor—a job that, ironically, doesn’t let him escape his feelings of being smothered by Mom. At the center of the book are a series of bittersweet stories set during Lucia and Fabio’s courtship in Italy, revealing that their union was clumsy and, to an extent, unwanted. The climactic ending, in which multiple voices weave together, feels earned instead of mawkish. By the book’s close Romano has offered a wealth of details about jobs, heartbreak, religion and the business of making it in America. Though he doesn’t get into as much nitty-gritty about the Windy City as one of his obvious inspirations, Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago (1990), he effectively evokes the city’s ethnic life and the culture clashes it produces, both at the dinner table and out in the neighborhoods.
A spirited evocation of a complex immigrant culture, willing to show the scars its characters bear.