Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.
A Novel about a Catholic Italian-American and a Jew from Long Island Who Fall in Love and Marry
Review of Blue Italian (Click to order) by Rita Ciresi. Dell Books. ISBN:. 304pp. $11.95
We've met these people before--in books, in movies, at Bar Mitzvahs. We're even related to some of them. Rosa Salvatore sat next to us in homeroom. Gary Fisher played his stereo too loudly in the dorm. Given this kind of acquaintance, Blue Italian is a comfortable, breezy read punctuated with moments of high-flying humor and heartbreaking tragedy. It is also a very familiar story which too often relies on well-worn situations and stereotypes to relate what the author herself describes as a "spoof of Love Story."
Rosa is a native, or as she sees it, a survivor of the Pizza Beach section of New Haven. Gary, a law student at Yale and a product of Long Island's prosperous Five Towns, is a disaffected Jew. Both are tethered to their ethnic backgrounds, introducing a convenient theme that sets the tone of the novel. The two meet at Yale New Haven Hospital where Rosa is a social worker and Gary is a legal aid volunteer assigned to represent one of her clients. It is love at first sight for Rosa. The seemingly reluctant Gary is not far behind. The magnetic attraction of these opposites becomes integral to the pacing and organization of the narrative.
But once they've come together, what happens to two people who have almost nothing in common? In this case they marry in a simple civil ceremony, grateful to be spared "being carried above everyone's head in a chair." They are even more grateful for not having to submit to a wedding that Rosa describes as "The Godfather without guns." The newlyweds resign themselves to being the objects of two receptions, one hosted by the Salvatores in their backyard, the other fastidiously catered in the Fishers' sterile mansion.
As it turns out, this kind of movement, skipping from scene to scene, family to family, does not allow the novel to mesh completely. Everyone stays in their corner, in melodramatic opposition to one another. Rosa and her mother Antoinette are not just another mother and daughter at odds with each other; they need a translator. Ms. Ciresi writes:
"Antoinette and Rosa used different words for just about everything, and it was not just a question of Antoinette resorting to Italian and Rosa insisting on English. Antoinette called eating pasta four times a week thrifty. Rosa called it cheap. Antoinette called marrying a neighborhood boy sensible. Rosa called it instant death."
Rosa's relationship with her mother-in-law Mimi is more complex as they vie for Gary's attention. "To Rosa, the other woman in Gary's life," Mimi writes in a card enclosed with lingerie. Despite this, they seem to persistently stay in each other's way. The chunky Rosa refuses to undress in front of the obsessively thin Mimi in department store dressing rooms, but goes shopping with her every chance she gets. Mimi, a living example of multiple plastic surgeries and an efficient and finicky hostess, chides Rosa about her appearance and her taste in bridal gifts. Yet Mimi is inexplicably silent when Rosa picks out Blue Italian, a gaudy china pattern, as if she understands it to be an ironic but necessary compromise. This preoccupation with material things eventually leads Rosa to connect deeper into her past, poignantly contrasting then and now.
"Rosa had wanted deep midnight blue and silver towels, the colors of the moon and stars and sky, to remind her of the sparkling, fragmented beauty of the constellations. There had been too many streetlights on Pizza Beach, and Rosa had not really seen the stars until she visited the Hayden Planetarium... "
At its best, Blue Italian is also an accomplished portrait of a marriage. Despite the blockades set up by their families, Rosa and Gary arrive at true love. Along the way though, they are frequently sidetracked by the opposing forces that can govern passion between two people. "'How could I ever have married you?' she thought. And then, the next moment: 'How could I not have?'"
By the end the novel, pushed along by some heavy-handed foreshadowing, rolls towards its inevitable tragedy. Rosa's suspicions of Gary's infidelity are embarrassingly trivial compared to the real culprit -- a malignant tumor. As Gary lays dying, the Love Story spoof that Ciresi intended to write quickly turns maudlin. Rosa advocates for the Jewish burial that she is certain Gary would want. Mimi however, refuses to play Naomi to Rosa's Ruth and scolds everyone around her for being too emotional.
Rita Ciresi is a very funny writer who takes an artistic risk in trying to shape recognizable material into original fiction. Occasionally, she does freshly explore these recurrent themes. It seems easier however, to capitalize on the fireworks that ensue when a rich Jewish boy marries an Italian Catholic girl from the other side of the tracks. Ms. Ciresi would have been better off immersing her readers in the plot rather than having us watch her exploit it. But her talent is such that she does make these characters durable, demonstrating that a pleasant read is an achievement in itself.