In an emotionally charged work of fiction, the actor and memoirist Romeo (Behind the Store, 2011) tells the story of Tony Romeo, an aging actor on daytime soaps, who returns his father’s ashes to his ancestral home in Calabria. In seaside Lirò Marina, Tony encounters old friends of his father’s as well as a large extended family that speaks as much English as Tony does Italian (not much). Despite his ongoing frustration with the language barrier (“I want a discussion—a dialogue,” he laments at one point), Tony finds his cousins to be hospitable hosts and excellent tour guides, even if he struggles to understand some of the nuances of their culture, such as their sometimes apathetic attitude toward the past. He also learns that his father had quite a storied reputation in town and a mysterious nickname Tony had never heard. As he tries to reconcile himself to the loss of his distant, sometimes-abusive father, whom he never felt he understood, Tony finds joy—and a newfound closeness with his late parent—in his efforts to fix up the farmhouse where his father spent much of his childhood. In the most compelling storyline in the book, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric, English-speaking painter named Artemis, known in town as a pazza, or crazy, for goatherding in traditional costume. The two bond over the challenges and pleasures of the artist’s life, their similar philosophical outlook and the immediate spark between them, but Artemis’ troubled past and Tony’s father’s secrets soon challenge their budding relationship. Unfortunately, not all of the Italian characters are as well-developed as Artemis, and Romeo is not quite a consummate writer. Early on, he slips distractingly in and out of past and present tense, and he occasionally falls back on stilted, overstated lines like: “It was beginning to dawn on me that not only was I going to learn about my father on this trip; I was also going to learn about myself.”
An admirable but uneven novel about the importance of family roots.