Thursday, July 21, 2011
The elegance of Madame Fortier's gown shop is a far cry from the downtrodden North End of Boston. Yet each day Julietta, Annamaria, and Luciana enter the world of the upper class, working on finery for the elite in society. The three beauties each long to break free of their obligations and embrace the American dream—and their chance for love. But the ways of the heart are difficult to discern at times. Julietta is drawn to the swarthy, mysterious Angelo. Annamaria has a star-crossed encounter with the grocer's son, a man from the entirely wrong family. And through no intent of her own, Luciana catches the eye of Billy Quinn, the son of Madame Fortier's most important client. Their destinies intertwined, each harboring a secret from their families and each other, will they be found worthy of the love they seek?
This is the second book I've read by Ms. Mitchell. The other, She Walks in Beauty, was great and I loved it. This one was a bit of a come down for me after the high from the last. Tackling themes of injustice, racism and prejudice towards the Italian immigrants of Boston, the book took on a lot. In addition to the burgeoning relationships of the three young women coping with their responsibilities, there was also the subplot of terrorism from political anarchists.
I admit, it took me a while to get into this historical fiction based in Boston during the end of WWI. Three young Italian girls face their own separate challenges and dreams while working for the well known dressmaker, Madame Fortier. It picked up considerably in the second half of the book and I became absorbed with the the three different young women, though I felt there could have been more depth when it came to their relationships with the men that enter their lives. Though sweet, more development was needed to do them justice. Still, I learned a bit about Boston's North End and the devastating Spanish Influenza that struck in 1918.
The book opens with the death of a prominent Italian nobleman that has been assassinated by anarchists in Rome. His daughter, Luciana and her grandmother have escaped to America, virtually penniless. Luciana is now in Boston in the Italian section known as the North End. As a nobleman's daughter who has been used to having everything done for her, she is now at a loss - how can she live and earn money? They are dirt poor and she is at her wit's end, plus she is certain her father's assassin has followed her and knows where she is so he can kill her as well. As luck would have it, she gets a job beading for a well known dressmaker. This is something that Luciana liked to do as a hobby and has a flair for it. Madame Fortier knows that Luciana is not quite who she says she is. There is a mystery to this young woman, but Madame is willing to take a chance-plus she needs the help badly.
Among Madame Fortier's other workers are two other young Italian women from the North End. Both are from large families filled with old world tradition and responsibilities. Both have ambition, but different in many way.
Julietta, a feisty go-getter, would one day like to be a partner with Madame Fortier. She has grand dreams of success and wants to get ahead in the world. But she has a weakness for handsome men which becomes her downfall. She is attracted to a stranger she meets every day en route to her job. He is handsome and a little dangerous - and he owns a truck (a big deal back then.) She flirts with him and one day she goes off with him. He expects her to sleep with him, but she is afraid to - luckily. Meanwhile, she has another suitor, a doctor and an old friend of the family. He is safe and prosperous, but he seems too staid and traditional for Julietta. She wants passion and excitement. Silly, silly girl. The good doctor, no matter how he tries, just doesn't have the same masculine charisma as Angelo, her mystery man with the truck. Will Julietta realize her mistake and choose good over bad before it's too late?
The other young woman at Madame Fortier's is Annamaria. The eldest daughter, she is destined to never marry. As the eldest, she must be available, as tradition expects, to take care of her parents into their old age. But Annamaria doesn't want this! It's unfair! She meets and is attracted to the nice Sicilian boy across the street at the Sicilian green grocer! A Sicilian - horrors! It just wasn't done! Italian immigrants come from different areas in Italy and even in America they don't mix. Sicilians were considered the worst of the worst as well! Still, Annamaria cannot help herself, she wants to go across the street to her Sicilian young man against her family's wishes. He feels the same way and I really liked the storyline of their sweet and clandestine courtship. This was by far was favorite part of the book. I was drawn to Annamaria's story and how she copes with her struggle to be the good and dutiful daughter and the love of the son of a Sicilian grocer.
Meanwhile, Luciana meets the handsome son of one of Madame Fortier's best clients, Billy Quinn. It turns out there's more than meets the eye of the Quinn's and Madame Fortier. Billy immediately becomes interested in the pretty Luciana, having no idea who she really is. She speaks no English, he speaks no Italian, so they speak to each other in German! He knows nothing about who she is. In what seems unrealistic and much too fast, with no relationship building, he asks her to marry him for he has been drafted and wants to marry her before he leaves. Everything was abbreviated. This is a "clean" book (code for no sex) so I didn't expect much in the romance department, but I wish there had been at least something deeper and poignant for all three girls. Luciana's scenario was my least favorite because of the lack of development with Billy. Annamaria and Juietta's romantic story lines received more attention, but I still felt it was too little.
Basically, the main problem with this book is that there was too much going on with the three different women and their separate stories. The book simply wasn't long enough to hold it all and none of the three young heroines were very likable. The anarchist bomb threat story line going on with Luciana was interesting of itself, but Luciana was such a lacklustre heroine, she needed more oomph and I didn't care too much about her and Billy. The other women and their relationships were much more interesting, but I wanted more emotion! All three stories only scratched the surface of what could have been much more meaningful plot lines regarding their romantic dilemmas which warred with their familial responsibilities. I understood what all three women were facing and going through, but I can't say I really liked any of them. I sympathized more with Julietta's doctor than anyone else in the book! Plus, there is the whole other story line about the coincidence of who Madame Fortier really is, not owning up to her Italian heritage and her relationship to the Quinn's - which I haven't even gone into! The big coincidence at the end was a bit much and predictable as well.
All in all, I appreciated this book for the historical aspect of it, which was interesting. I knew nothing about Boston's North End or the Spanish Influenza. But, I can't say I'd recommend it enthusiastically if you're looking for a romance. If you are interested in this time period and setting then you'd probably like it, but it was slim in some respects, primarily the relationship building and emotion. If you're looking for a love story, you'll be dissatisfied with this one, though this might be appealing to a young teen.