Once a week, throughout this year, I’ve decided to review a book that people may have missed. I can’t be the only one who has a list of books they want, just in case they come across a charity shop or second hand bookshop. So I thought, instead of always reviewing brand new books I would write about a charity shop find of my own here and there. Not everyone can afford brand new hardbacks and while I’m very lucky to get a certain number of review copies, it must be nice to see a book in paperback that’s not going to break the bank.
My first second hand review is a paperback copy of Adriana Trigiani’s Tony’s Wife. I find Trigiani’s books like having a duvet day. They’re always warm, comforting and full of vivid descriptions of Italian food, fashion and period detail. They never fail to make me smile. Her female characters are always resilient and passionate. Often they’re fighting to make their own way in the world and move away from traditional roles for Italian women. Chi Chi Donatelli is no different. We meet her in the 1930s, living on the Jersey Shore with her parents and two sisters. By day the girls work at the Jersey Miss factory, stitching blouses and dresses by piece work and forming those friendships within the factory’s women. Trigiani observes that traditionally, these are the women who give you a sash and have a whip round when you’re a bride to be, who help out with your child’s First Communion dress and support you in widowhood. However, Chi Chi wants more than this. She has an ambition. She wants to be paid to sing and write songs. Already blessed with talent, Chi Chi and her sisters are the Donatelli Sisters, but small town fame and singing at mass are not enough for her. Her father sees her talent and shares her dream. He builds a recording studio behind the house and ferries Chi Chi to gigs and slips DJs a few dollars to play her records.
Saverio Amondonada meets Chi Chi when she’s surrounded by family and he’s become Tony Arma, the singer touring the US with a big band. All the time he was working the line at the Ford factory in Detroit alongside his father, Saverio dreamed of becoming a singer. He wanted to use his voice for more than the Church choir. When he’s approached by an agent all his dreams start to come true. His mum is supportive, but his father is deeply insulted by his son’s need for more. The Ford line was enough for Leone. His family were so poor that his dreams had been different; the ability to work hard and support his wife and family was enough. In Leone’s eyes, Saverio’s need for fame belittles the hard work and sacrifices that brought him up. One Christmas Eve matters come to a head. Saverio’s hopes are dashed when Cheryl Dombroski announces her engagement to the choir before Midnight Mass. She was Saverio’s friend, but for a long time he has hoped for more, waiting for the right time to tell her. Clutching the gold chain he has bought her, Saverio opens his heart, but has his hopes dashed when Cheryl flashes her engagement ring. His heartbroken performance that night draws an agents attention and it comes at the right moment. Later, back at home, an argument with his father escalates and Leone tells him to leave if the family home is no longer enough for him. The worst insult comes when Saverio changes to his stage name and, according to Leone, turns his back on his family history.
Tony Arma and Chi Chi Donatelli spark off each other. Chi Chi’s fatber convinces them to record one of her songs, entitled ‘Mama’s Rolling Pin’. They then spend time trying to get the record played on the radio. Then tragedy strikes. Chi Chi’s father has a heart attack and dies. His sudden death is devastating for the whole family, but particularly for Chi Chi who has lost the person who believes in her, and her dreams of a singing career the most. She comes back down to earth in a bump when the sisters find how much money he owed. His belief that Chi Chi had the talent to hit the big time led him to remortgage the family home in order to build the studio and kit it out with the best recording equipment. The debt must be renegotiated by the sisters and the bank’s deal would leave them destitute. In order to keep the roof over her mother’s head Chi Chi gives all of her savings, renegotiates with the bank and auditions to be the girl singer with Tony’s band. However, his agent offers her a better role, composing songs and playing piano. Slowly, their record has been gaining momentum too and they are asked to perform the single wherever they go. Chi Chi sees that Tony’s lifestyle involves lots of women, who fall in love with him only to be heartbroken when he moves to the next one. The band gets through girl singers at an alarming rate. ChiChi resolves to be Tony’s friend, and nothing more. He trusts her and she soon becomes his confidante and provider of a good home cooked meal on the road. War is looming though and lives are going to change forever. What will war do to their careers and their friendship?
I found this book very charming and easy to read in big chunks. I loved Trigiani’s descriptions: the handmade Christmas decorations of the Saverio family, Chi Chi’s gowns and all the period fashion, the Italian recipes and wedding traditions. This is a novel about a lifelong friendship that somehow endures, despite disappointment, distance and broken promises. It is about family, both the ones we’re born into and those we create ourselves. How do we honour years of sacrifice and tradition without losing our own hopes and dreams? It’s about generation gaps and how we bridge them. It is about regrets and whether, over a lifetime, we regret more the things we have done or those opportunities we didn’t take. It’s about fidelity, both in a romantic sense but also to our faith, our culture and our family. As always, Trigiani’s lightness of touch means that these big themes never become laboured. There is so much fun to be had here, despite the pain. Chi Chi is an incredibly strong character, who isn’t just a creative artist but a great businesswoman. She grabs opportunities to purchase real estate in Manhattan, and makes her money work for her. She works hard and provides for her family. In this sense she is a very modern woman who doesn’t rely on a man to look after her. She’s an easy character to love and spend time with. I found Saverio more difficult to understand and veered between concern and anger at some of his behaviour. They approach life differently but together their banter, their talent and their friendship creates an engaging story that I savoured as long as I could while being simultaneously desperate to find out what happens next,