Italian-American Family Wrestles with Aspirations and Nostalgia

By Russo, Maria | International Herald Tribune, April 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Italian-American Family Wrestles with Aspirations and Nostalgia


Russo, Maria, International Herald Tribune


In Christopher Castellani's latest novel, Italian-Americans balance their aspirations for the future and their nostalgia for Italy.

All This Talk of Love. By Christopher Castellani. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Paperback. $13.95.

Early in Christopher Castellani's new novel, "All This Talk of Love," Frankie Grasso wonders whether he and his family are "at the end of something." Frankie is a 30-ish graduate student in English literature, still a long way from the end of his dissertation. An answer begins to take shape when his sister, an affluent stay-at- home mom who has never strayed far from their childhood home in Delaware, organizes a family trip to Santa Cecilia, the village in Italy where their parents grew up.

For all of the Grassos, the very idea of the trip stirs up thoughts of old losses, ghosts that shadow the present, prompted by the dissonant fact that like many if not most Italian-Americans, Antonio and Maddalena Grasso enshrined in their children a glowing image of things Italian yet never took them to Italy or even taught them the language. Feeling oneself "at the end of something," this slyly ambitious novel suggests, may well be the existential condition of being Italian-American.

This is the third book Mr. Castellani has devoted to the Grassos, a series of novels that with their mellifluous, gently satirical style and dark, elegiac heart, form something of an opera buffa of the immigrant experience.

The first two, "A Kiss From Maddalena" and "The Saint of Lost Things," followed Antonio and Maddalena from the desperation of wartime Italy through their early years in America. "All This Talk of Love" jumps forward a few decades. Now Antonio's restaurant, Al Di La, has become a great success, and it's time to hand it over.

He and Maddalena, who is becoming worryingly forgetful, are preoccupied by the images from the past that have been stirred by the prospect of this final trip. They have already lost a child under wrenching circumstances, and now they are trying to chart a path through the indignities of old age. Frankie and his sister, Prima, have never had to worry about the sort of troubles that plagued their parents' youth, but they still have soul-wearying anxieties: They're unsure of how they're supposed to live, how to realize ambitions that are inconceivable to their parents.

In the Grassos and their multilayered conflicts, Mr. Castellani has created an answer of sorts to Gay Talese's observation, 20 years ago in these pages, that no serious Italian-American writer has achieved the popular stature of a Scorsese or a Sinatra. Talese described Italian-Americans as the descendants of a people "united in the fear of being found out." Italian-Americans were steered away from academic tracks, he argued, and then for decades even literary- minded Italian-Americans like Talese got a cold shoulder from the publishing establishment.

Mr. Castellani hasn't written the big, defining, Scorsese-scale novel Talese was missing -- he's too fine-boned a writer, and perhaps too fond of tidy resolutions many would call sentimental -- but he has elegantly captured the essence of Talese's argument. …

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