Monday, April 29, 2013

Book love: The Witch of Little Italy

My New York grandmother used to read tea leaves and cards. She whispered to me a secret--that she’d done this until one day she saw a man’s death, then she did it no more. It is one reason I like magical realism—stories set in ordinary life but with fantastical elements, things that are not easily explained, the mysteries of life. However, this isn’t meant to be a discussion of what constitutes magical realism or whether it’s just another name for fantasy. It’s about falling in love with a story no matter what genre is slapped on it.

What I can say for certain is Suzanne Palmieri’s The Witch of Little Italy is about authentic, flesh-and-blood relationships, and it’s magical—a wonder of a debut novel.

When I picked up The Witch of Little Italy I felt at home with the characters and their intuition, their ability to know things from afar or before they happen. Suzanne has created a richly-layered family of women who all have The Sight, which gets them into trouble as well as leads them out of difficulties. The few surviving members of the Amore family (a number of them died on one terrible day) live in a Bronx apartment house they’ve owned for decades.

If you like the stories of Alice Hoffman, you should love this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to the audio version of Hoffman’s The Probable Future, and what I love most about that story are the relationships between grandmother, daughter, granddaughter.

  Suzanne has developed women and relationships every bit as complex, difficult, estranged and heartrendingly beautiful. It’s what I hoped I’d find, since I’d been following Suzanne’s blog for a long time and admire her honest and beautiful writing. She’s gutsy, inventive and lyrical.

  In The Witch of Little Italy, college student Eleanor Amore, is pregnant by an abusive boyfriend. Her mother is dismissive and cold, so Eleanor takes a chance on a grandmother and grand-aunts she hardly knows since she’s lost her childhood memories. They welcome her to their apartment house as though they expect her. Because they do; they all had “seen” her come home. They see something darker, too.

I won’t give away spoilers. The story slowly reveals the family’s secrets and mysteries. And gives the characters a chance to breathe and grow.

Here are some samples of writing style:
(From Eleanor’s POV):
 Eleanor stood very still outside her family’s building on 170th Street. The night was mild for December but the snow fell anyway, glittery dancing dust. It rested in delicate layers, coating Eleanor’s hat and oversized sweater. She kicked the snow and faced her past.

(skipping ahead after Eleanor becomes nervous and stubborn about going inside, even after several invitations from the inhabitants.)
Eleanor turned around and walked to the curb to try and hail a cab.

A crumpled ball of paper flew over her head and landed in the snow at her feet. It began to unfurl. Eleanor picked it up.

That’s right. Move along. Nothing here to see. Love, Aunt Itsy.

“Itsy,” Eleanor said the strange name aloud. It rolled off her tongue and mingled with the snowflakes. Her heart knew the name even if her mind only contained a small recollection. She turned back to see the woman who tossed the paper, but as she turned the door shut tight against her.

(From great-aunt Itsy’s POV):
 I thought of the girl, her back pressed against the door in the hallway. That face. Light, like Mama. Soft features, not hard like Carmen. A softer version of her mother in all the good ways. The last time she was back she was about thirteen or so. She wasn’t at all the little spitfire she’d been when we’d first had her. I remember I was so worried that night. Worried she’d remember—just like I am now.

(Itsy, remembering her mother, Margaret Green, who taught them magic and more)
"Life gets heavy," she told us, "like hot summer nights. At first you toss and turn, but slowly you learn that if you keep very, very still your body can capture a random breeze that latches onto you and cools you for a moment. Infinite and blissful, your body soars to greet it and holds onto it, but it leaves. And that's love. That's what love does."

Suzanne did a wonderful interview with Joyce Lamb at USA TODAY. She talks about sealing agreements (on the same day!) for two-book deals with two publishing houses. Her second novel, I'll Be Seeing You, is co-written (as Suzanne Hayes) with Loretta Nyhan and will be released in May. It is letters between two women during World War II. You know you want to read this interview and these books. Really, you do.


Anne Gallagher said...

I think I might love this book too. It's definitely on my summer reading list.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Oooh this sounds good! Very tempting for an adult novel. ;D

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Anne & Lisa: Yes! Read, please.

Liza said...

Yep, I ordered before it came out on Amazon and read it over one weekend once I received it. It's sweet and magic but very real at the same time. It's a lovely read!

Lydia Kang said...

The title itself is just so great. Thanks for putting it on my radar!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Liza: I'm excited to see what Suzy comes up with for her Southern-based novel. Got to be good.

Lydia: I adore the title, too. :)Thanks for coming by!

Phoenix said...

I'm excited to read this! I like the idea of magical realism quite a lot and your review has intrigued me. :) I'll add it to the (ever-growing) list of books that I want to read this year. Thanks Tricia!

Donna said...

Thanks for your usual thoughtful, heartfelt review. I'm going to read this, too.

Sarah Laurence said...

I always enjoy your book reviews and it was fun to get a glimpse into your childhood too.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Phoenix: There's quite a commotion of what is or isn't magical realism. I suppose some urban fantasy could fall in that category, too. Anyway, I like it. :D

Donna: Yay, thank you!

Sarah: Actually, I wish I'd seen her do the readings, but she'd stopped before I came along. If I could travel back in time, I'd go find her as a younger woman and hang out. She was always fun.

Julie Dao said...

I've been a long-time reader of Suzy's blog (her old one) and fell in love with her writing instantly. Her words are a kind of magical realism in themselves. I can't wait to read this book!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Julie! You're absolutely right--Suzy's words are so often a kind of magical realism. :)

Talli Roland said...

This sounds like a fantastic read. Love the title.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi Talli! I love the title, too,and the cover. All around love. :)