Review: Kiss Carlo, by Adriana Trigiani
Harper, 2017. 524 pp. $28
Nicky Castone drives a cab for the family business in South Philadelphia in 1949. But it’s not his family, exactly, for when his parents died, the Palazzinis, his Aunt Jo and Uncle Dominic, took him in and have treated him as their own ever since. His aunt, uncle, and army of cousins assume that Nicky will follow the same path they have. He’ll marry his fiancée of seven years, Peachy DePino, drive a hack as he’s always done, and live with his bride in the rambling Palazzini house on Montrose Street. He’ll father children, be a regular at church, and sit down to his Aunt Jo’s fabulous cooking every day. That’s what life’s supposed to be, and since the Second World War is over and business is good, why not?
Why, indeed? What Nicky hasn’t told anyone–certainly not Peachy, who’s an even straighter arrow than his kinsmen–is that he moonlights at a struggling neighborhood theater. He does everything for the Borelli Theater that anyone backstage can do–clean the floors, hold the prompt book, you name it; that’s Nicky Castone, ever helpful, ever self-effacing. But one night, an emergency forces the prompter into playing Sebastian, a lead role in Twelfth Night, opposite the director, Calla Borelli, to whom he’s attracted.
Much hinges on that fateful moment, from which point forth, our Nicky is a different man, no longer content to follow his cousins’ path, though he loves them and worships his Aunt Jo. I won’t tell you how he tries to break free or the scrapes he gets into, some of which are howlingly funny. Just a hint, though: The Carlo of the title is an ambassador from an Italian mountain village who takes ship for the United States and the Pennsylvania town once settled by the villagers. When his path crosses Nicky’s, hi-jinks ensue.
Humor is therefore the great strength of Kiss Carlo, and Trigiani lovingly re-creates this South Philly Italian clan. There’s a pair of feuding brothers who “severed ties over money, the cause of every split in every Italian family since the Etruscans,” during which “the grievances stacked up, one upon the other, like soggy layers of wedding pastries on a Venetian table. Then it got personal.” Through these observations, which pepper the narrative, and characters who never lack for a quip, Trigiani captures the postwar striving, the ambitions, the jealousies:
Jo’s simple gold wedding band remained on her hand, but Nancy [her sister-in-law] traded up. The prongs on Nancy’s modest quarter-carat diamond engagement ring were stretched to accommodate the glitzy three-and-a-half-carat upgrade. The delicate gold chain around Nancy’s neck was replaced with one as thick as a strand of pappardelle, from which dangled a new medal more miraculous than a pope’s.
The geniality and generosity Trigiani displays toward her characters and readers go far to make Kiss Carlo enjoyable, funny, and occasionally thoughtful, a paean to those who follow their star in life no matter what anyone says and risk everything to be happy. It’s a nice message and good tonic. In particular, I like how Trigiani makes Nicky (and others) suffer to get where they’re going. For the most part, there are no easy fixes here, and plenty of reversals.
Nevertheless, she rescues her characters in the end, and it feels forced, just like the sepia-toned harmony in which they bask. This is 1949, after all, and racial and ethnic tensions weren’t in hiding, not in South Philadelphia or anywhere else. Yet the Palazzini business has an African-American dispatcher, Mrs. Mooney, and not only would one ever dream of casting a slur, you get the feeling she’d be welcome in the family. Likewise, one Palazzini daughter-in-law, Elsa, is a Polish war bride (read: Jewish) who survived “by working in a hospital,” a miracle that goes unexplained. As the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust, Elsa suffers no apparent trauma, seems perfectly happy among devout Italian Catholics, yet when she announces that she wishes to attend synagogue once more, no one blows a gasket. It’s all in the family.
It’s that desire, understandable but unreal, to rescue absolutely everyone that mars Kiss Carlo for me. Maybe it works for Nicky, but when his attempt at self-liberation inspires Mrs. Mooney and Elsa to break free as well, that’s pushing it. Developing those supblots to their pleasant but dubious conclusions also makes the novel longer than it should be. As a light confection with its sober side, Kiss Carlo would have worked better than the many-layered pastry it is. The layers aren’t soggy, but they can’t bear the weight put on them.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.