Saturday, June 10, 2017

Two tales of people, place, and identity: Kiss Carlo (Trigiani) and No Other World (Mehta)

Summer has descended upon Northern Virginia. I've been enjoying reading in the cozy chairs we bought for our sunroom. Sadly, it will soon be too hot in there to breathe till Fall. Luckily, there's a pool nearby!

I'd find it hard to say "no" when offered a taste of Trigiani. I truly adored The Shoemaker's Wife. Still, I've also glanced at other novels she penned and felt immediately turned off. But, the adoration won out and I happily signed up to receive an advance edition of this novel (which came with lipstick!).

Although it takes a few trips...including to Italy and to a small town in PA...this book's heart is in Philadelphia. Nicky is growing up in a bustling family, adopted by an Aunt and Uncle when his mother passed and raised alongside their three sons. He eventually becomes part of the family taxi business, a thriving affair in 1949 as the economy bustles after the war, with their main competition coming from the uncle's estranged brother. Still, Nicky finds himself drawn to a small struggling theater company and works there part-time for years before revealing the secret to his longtime girlfriend just as he's thrust onto the stage when the company is shorthanded. This story develops alongside the story of a small PA town getting ready to welcome an important visitor from the town's struggling sister city in Italy.

And, well, to avoid saying too much (which some summaries do), I'll just say it all gets thrown in a jar and shaken.

I really wanted to love this book. I did FEEL the place, possibly more vividly since I'm half-Italian and grew up just outside of Philadelphia, and that's a credit to Trigiani. She paints several places beautifully. While her characters are interesting, they don't feel nearly as real as the places do. I certainly cheered for Nicky, but I got a bit weary as the story mixed him up into plots that seemed thrown together at random. It would have been a much better book if it was, well, several books. I could have handled some loose connections tying together a trilogy, though even then I feel like the overlaps would have needed to be minimized. There's just too much going on and Nicky is in the middle of all of it, when he just shouldn't be.

There are some great aspects of this book. As I've mentioned, she's a master of place. And I just loved Hortense, the taxi company's dispatcher, although her storyline follows Nicky's to the small town and loses me a bit (hers is a good tale, just felt too forced). And Calla, the daughter of the aging owner of the theater, is a pretty cool lady too. But, the fact that there was too MUCH, too MANY plots tied too loosely together, dominated and knocks what could have been a four-star novel down to three.

This is a story about family, culture, and identity. Kiran is born to a couple who immigrated to America from India in search of the American dream. In some ways, they have it. They are doing fine and living in a nice town in Western NY, but Kiran feels like he doesn't quite belong. He questions how he fits, both in his nation and in his own home. The book also introduces us to the uncle who stayed behind in India and eventually to his son as well, providing the reader different eyes on the story. Although Kiran is the protagonist, we also see stories he doesn't, including his mom's brief affair and his cousin's struggle during his brief visit to the U.S. As Kiran grows and becomes aware of his own identity as a gay man, other questions arise that make the study in identity even broader.

I liked the roundness of the characters here. We see imperfections and secrets and we see how even those who look at ease feel a bit lost. I enjoyed this book, but it didn't stay with me much beyond the last place. I also felt like a few of the storylines...the early mention of one girl's death on 9/11, the key moments in Kiran's trip to India...felt forced into the story like ideas the writer wanted to be sure to get on the page.

This DID feel real at many points and I think it would connect on a deeper level with first-generation Americans and also with those who know what it feels like to be gay in a culture that won't utter the word. 

Three and a half stars. Provided to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.