July 2013

Rebecca Silber

fiction

The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri

Suzanne Palmieri's debut novel, The Witch of Little Italy, is a refreshingly light read. Palmieri's sentences cascade across the pages, each expertly crafted and thoughtfully assembled. The story she tells is unabashedly its own, a magical novel that is not overpowered by sorcery. Palmieri includes just enough spells in her caldron to allow for a pleasing sense of whimsy not normally seen in a book of this quality. She strikes an assured balance between that whimsy and her characters' heavier real-life situations, among them unwed mothers, abusive relationships, and untimely death.

The Witch of Little Italy tells the story of a Yale student, Eleanor Amore. When visiting her mother, Carmen, in New York City over her winter vacation, Eleanor discovers that she is pregnant. Carmen is a self-absorbed actress and has been in and out of Eleanor's life between stints in drug rehab and stage shows for as long as Eleanor can recall. Unsurprisingly, she is not supportive in the least when Eleanor shares the news of her pregnancy. The baby's father, Cooper Bakersmith, is abusive physically and emotionally. Suddenly in a predicament that would typically drag a young, unmarried woman into a dark depression, Eleanor immediately gets her shit together.

Soon after sharing the news of her pregnancy with Carmen, Eleanor recalls a time much earlier in her life when her mother took her to visit family in the Bronx. Eleanor, guided by a voice in her head calling "come home," immediately sets out to find her Amore relatives. Upon arrival, she is greeted warmly. Most of the women in the Amore family share special powers called "The Sight," and her grandmother, Mimi, and great aunts, Itsy and Fee, foresaw Eleanor's arrival. Once living in the Amore apartment building, Eleanor becomes known as Elly. For the first time that she can remember, she is loved unconditionally by her family as well as by her childhood sweetheart whom she reunites with, Anthony.

If this all sounds like a quick resolution full of sunshine and rainbows, it does appear that way superficially. However, Elly is troubled by the fact that she mysteriously does not remember anything before the age of ten. Elly, during the course of her pregnancy, works to strengthen her own powers, self-assuredness, and confidence in order to regain these precious childhood memories. In the process, she finds a deep and loving trust in Anthony and solves a riveting family mystery. The mystery component adds a nice amount of suspense to the novel and propels the reader further and further back into the ancestral fibers of the Amore family.

As expected when an extended Italian family lives under the same roof in the Bronx, the characters in The Witch of Little Italy are eccentric and full of personality. They cook hunger-inducing dinners and hide secrets that go back through generations. The novel, while a light read, is not fluff; it is a complex story that weaves itself through time and through past stories belonging to different family members. Palmieri uses flashbacks and differing points-of-view as tools in adding to the layers of the family quilt, so to speak. She does this with her own special wizardry in such a way that the transitions add much interest and are not confusing.

Mama, the great-grandmother in The Witch of Little Italy once explained to Elly's aunt, Itsy, that "My family in Fairview, which is your family too, don't you forget, was considered witches. All it meant was that there was a certain knowledge we had... a separate sort of looking through time and space that could help or hurt those around us." For the Amore family, their magic power of foresight does not mean that the future cannot be changed by someone with enough strong will and determination. Elly prevails as a heroically strong character. She is intelligent and knows what she can change and changes it, explaining that "'The person I was, even a few months ago, was not a person I want to remember being. I was so damaged that I didn't know the difference between what I wanted and what Carmen -- or anyone else for that matter -- wanted for me.'" She realistically comes to terms with what cannot be altered, but through the power of love, musters up all of the strength a pregnant lady can gather to better her situation and learn to take care of herself.

The Witch of Little Italy is a well-crafted story of love, history, and secrets. The majority of Palmieri's characters are strong women who really make this a book about downtrodden females who find their inner strength and persevere. Palmieri's personal story, I learned in her bio, is also one of rising out of trying circumstances and emerging successful and strong. Palmieri certainly emerges as a successful and strong writer in this debut novel.

The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri
St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN: 978-1250015518
320 pages