Some books, particularly romantic fiction, are like potato chips --- tasty little morsels that offer a brief but satisfying crunch. You don't expect them to satisfy your hunger but they'll do for the moment. Others are more like multi-course meals --- epic sagas that take you weeks to read and leave you feeling sated, if slightly overly full --- like a great dinner at an exclusive restaurant; you can't do it all the time, but when it happens, it's a memorable event.
Adriana Trigiani's THE QUEEN OF THE BIG TIME doesn't fall into either of these categories: it's the home-cooked meal no one makes quite like your Mom --- whether your Mom specialized in pot roast, baked ziti or arroz con pollo. Warm, satisfying and filling, without being overly rich, it's a book meant to be savored.
THE QUEEN OF THE BIG TIME tells the story of three generations of the Castelluca family, who live near Roseto, Pennsylvania. The novel centers on Nella Castelluca, her parents and her sisters, as they grow up on a farm outside of Roseto. Nella meets and falls in love with the most popular boy in town, Renato Lanzara. Renato's fondness for books and poetry match well with Nella's own love of learning, and it seems like a match made in heaven. Then, inexplicably, Renato leaves Nella and Roseto altogether, breaking poor Nella's heart. Four years later, just as Nella is about to start a new life with another man, Renato returns.
Trigiani's novel reads, in part, like a love letter to the immigrant families that settled in eastern Pennsylvania from Italy in the 1800s and worked hard to maintain their customs and way of life. The book takes its name from the town's biggest annual celebration --- "The Big Time" --- which is the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, occurring every year in late July. The genuine warmth and affection the author feels for her characters --- including the town of Roseto --- clearly is reflected throughout the book, particularly in the care with which Trigiani handles all her characters.
There are a few missteps --- the novel's final sections feel much more rushed than the warm, leisurely pace with which the story opens, and early on in the novel Trigiani contextually includes several authentic recipes (sort of like an Italian-American LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) that suddenly stopped appearing, leaving me feeling a little cheated. But these elements, while mildly frustrating, are like a few lumps in the gravy: they don't really distract from the overall satisfaction the book brings and, ultimately, add to the "homemade flavor" of the book.
Fans of Trigiani's popular Big Stone Gap trilogy and LUCIA, LUCIA will find much to love in THE QUEEN OF THE BIG TIME, which similarly draws on the author's family history and background. Newcomers to Adriana Trigiani's work should thoroughly enjoy this novel as a fitting introduction to a talented author with a genuine affection for her roots. And who knows --- the novel may inspire some to visit its setting, the real Roseto, Pennsylvania (about 60 miles outside of Philadelphia) to see The Big Time, the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, held each year in Roseto during the third week of July.
Reviewed by Lourdes Orive on January 23, 2011
The Queen of the Big Time