Queen of the Big Time (by Adriana Trigiani)

Sometimes when I acquire a new book, I can hardly wait to read it. Other times, it sits on my to-be-read shelf for months, maybe longer. This particular one, the third I’ve read by Adriana Trigiani, has been waiting for nearly four years. A note inside mentions that I bought it at a church bookstall as long ago as September 2012.

But I finally started to read ‘Queen of the Big Time’ about five days ago, and finished it this morning. At first I only read, as I usually do, for twenty minutes or so at bedtime. But I found that the characters got under my skin and I wanted to know where the story was going, so I picked it up at other random times through the day, and then read the last 100 pages or so in one sitting.

It’s the story of a young Italian American girl called Nella, who is the narrator of most of the novel. We first meet her in 1924 when she is fourteen, and eagerly awaiting a visit from her beloved school teacher. The local school only goes as far as seventh grade, but Nella’s teacher thinks she has the potential to go to the high school in the town three miles away. Nella and her family live on a farm, and she is the middle daughter of five.

The rest of the book is about Nella growing up and growing into adulthood and middle age. She makes a good friend at the high school, realises that her oldest sister isn’t as mean as she sometimes appears, recognises how hard her parents work… and has to make difficult decisions about work, study and love. It’s impossible to say much more without giving spoilers, but this is primarily a character-based book, based in part on reminiscences from the author’s father and grandmother.

The writing style is fairly slow paced, with descriptions that I sometimes skimmed, and conversations that felt, to me, entirely believable. I know almost nothing about the Italian American communities, but there’s an authentic touch that made them come alive in my mind. I particularly appreciated the insights into workers in a clothing factory, a topic which had not previously interested me at all. The author is skilled in painting pictures of people’s lives and occupations without any hint of being overtly educational or researched.

I am not much like Nella in personality: she’s outgoing, determined, confident in business, and extremely hard-working. I related more to her sister Elena, who is more of a shadowy character. But I very much enjoyed Nella’s take on life, the reasons for the decisions she makes, and her growing awareness of who she really is, something that doesn’t hit her fully until she’s in her fifties.

The Catholic Church has a big part to play in this novel, and I appreciated insights into the way the ceremonies happened, and how respected the priests were in this era. There’s no ‘preaching’, but a great deal of questioning, and a realistic view of the frailty of everyone, no matter how devout. There are some unexpected and tragic incidents in the novel, but they’re sensitively dealt with. Given the era and the circumstances, they’re probably realistic.

The ending is gentle and open, and there’s then a bittersweet epilogue, one I’m still not certain about. The book could have finished without it; yet this rounds it off in a way that helped bring it to completion.

Recommended to anyone who likes historical fiction based originally on real people, with no real plot other than the unfolding and developing of somebody’s life.

Re-printed recently in the US, though not currently in print in the UK. Widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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