This novel relates the adventures over a two-plus-year period 2010-2013 of an extended Italian-American family who own and operate a shoe business in New York City, told through the eyes of one of its members, Valentine Roncalli, a 35-year-old woman.
A designer in the Angelini family shoe business, Valentine works in the company in which most of her siblings and in-laws, parents, husband, and even her ex-fiance and her Argentine second cousin once-removed also work. Brother Alfred keeps the books, sister-in-law Pamela writes the ads and web site, husband Gianluca does the tanning, cousin Don acquires financing for an Ohio factory, cousin Roberta runs a South American factory, and so on. The author helpfully provides a family tree on the inside cover, and I referred to it often.
This book has a strongly ethnic Italian-American feel to it. As someone not a part of that culture, at first I found this very involved extended family to be extremely overbearing and rather suffocating, and I wasn’t sure I could handle 300 pages of their intrusive obnoxious meddling in each other’s lives. An early extended scene of their Christmas Eve get-together celebrating Valentine’s engagement was quite intense.
However, I gradually came to realize my negative judgment was premature, as the narrative gradually becomes increasingly compelling until it becomes hard to put the book down. By the end one has come to care deeply about these characters and realize they are in fact very loving and supportive of each other, though in their own very outspoken way. In Valentine’s journey through courtship, marriage, business expansion, motherhood, and tragedy, the family is always there and in the end the reader recognizes they are an invaluable part of who Valentine is. It is in fact a wonderful glimpse into a world I was unfamiliar with.
Some of the struggles are universal, however. Valentine’s seeking how to be both a loving wife and her own individual and professional self after 15 years of so on independent singleness are especially well developed. She really believes she can “have it all” but later questions what that means. The resolution is complex and nuanced, as such issues are in the real world. Her family is of course always ready to offer her lots of advice, but, to their credit, most of them are surprisingly willing to accept her course of action.
Everyone is family, and family is everything. Even her beloved Italian husband is the stepson of her maternal grandmother. Her Irish-American ex-fiance remains an important part of Valentine’s life and family business long after the breaking of the engagement, though never as a threat to her marriage. Life and death are never far away. Even some long-departed ancestors are still vital parts of people’s lives. It is extremely important to the family to keep their memories alive for the next generation.
Although most of the story occurs in New York City, Valentine and family journey on occasion to New Jersey, Tuscany, and Youngstown, Ohio, as part of their adventure. Of course, there is extended family in each of those places.
Author Trigiani has written numerous other popular novels, including “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” “Rococo,” the Big Stone Gap series, and novels for young adults. Many deal with the Italian-American experience, especially, though not exclusively, in New York City. I have read some, though not all, of her works, and I believe this one is my favorite.
One rather puzzling aspect is the very curious title of this book, which is not even mentioned until over halfway through and then only very briefly as a symbol of a significant business venture. Also, the cover art is striking but bears little obvious relation to anything in the book.
These are minor quibbles, however. The book is a compelling read about an important American ethnic culture that has been critical in the history of our country. I greatly credit Trigiani for developing her characters so well that I came to care about them in spite of some unpleasant characteristics on the surface.