“Be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” – Nora Ephron
A strong woman is not defined by men, but is in full possession of herself and her life. She balances her masculine and feminine sides; is her own person. She has fought and survived many battles; internal and external. She works hard, gets straight back up when knocked down, speaks for herself.
Such is Grandma: the first in a triptych of very different women whom we meet at the opening of this thought-provoking first novel that is rooted in feminist tropes which the author understands and conveys so well.
Act I: The Emigrants
More Sicilians have made their homes in the US than from anywhere else, spawning generations of film makers and writers who have enriched American culture. From Jerre Mangione’s Mount Allegro to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; from The Untouchables to The Sopranos: the Sicilian-American experience and attendant mafia myth have proved enduring and lucrative, all the while eclipsing other aspects of the Italian experience in America. How often is it seen through the eyes of a woman?
Traditionally women cared for the children, ran the household, cooked delicious meals, and cut the drugs: silent and unheard. In Three Women, Grandma steps into the power void left by absent men and takes charge: the godmother as opposed to the godfather.
Josepina is married off to a man she does not love, but they have a future since New York beckons. When he ends up in prison, she emigrates regardless, but returns to Sicily after the death of their baby daughter. Widowed, she meets her second husband visiting his family in Palermo. The couple returns to Brooklyn.
“Josepina had spent much of her childhood outdoors and she felt it was right and healthy for her own daughter to enjoy the air as often as she could. It was one of the things that had surprised her about living in New York – how much time people spent indoors. They talked about the weather and used it as an excuse to stay locked in, under cover and alone. She suffered the indignity of many young mothers – with every busybody neighbour offering advice and imagining they knew best for her child and for her.”
Josepina’s growth into adulthood is reflected in the way she comes to terms with moving from a world of rooted tradition into one of reality and materialism. She toughens up and becomes a formidable old lady known as Grandma. “She was like a rock . . . She could look after herself.”
The author’s clear-eyed, unsentimental portrayal of the hardships endured by young Josepina show how she was affected as she evolved into the woman she grew up to be. Well-written scenes allow the reader to viscerally take part in the story and bond with her.
Act II: The Incandescent Mind
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Mrs Dalloway are classic texts that explore the relationship between women, writing and money; and the way men’s and women’s lives are conventionally divided into the spheres of career vs. domestic.
The same tensions are still with us in the 21st century, even though there’s no such thing as a job for life and the cradle-to-grave career progression we once took for granted is a thing of the past. Today, in many marriages, the husband will still pursue his own interests and career, while his wife puts doing her own thing last, and meeting the needs of family and home first. Being a working mother is an ongoing struggle, let alone being a single mother . . .
Veronica is an ambitious actress. Her voice is special. An affair with director Alan Tomlinson turns into marriage and they have three children. Reading about Veronica’s artistic development and thwarted dreams, you get a very real feel for the highs and lows of her craft, and how acting is one of the least reliable career paths.
“They’d had plans to be a great artistic couple, but she had to admit that it could never have happened. Not once they had their kids and she was stuck with that burden. How could she be expected to focus on her craft when she had all this responsibility? She’d had one hand tied behind her back since Natalie was born.”
Act III: Like Mother, Like Daughter?
“When she had first gone to university, Natalie had had the same feeling that she had now, of escape; the anticipation of being free of the chaos of her family, relieved of the weight of looking after everything because her mother was so often distracted. Veronica made decisions based on knee-jerk reactions that rarely worked out perfectly for herself or the rest of them.”
Veronica’s eldest daughter – “the reliable one” – goes off with Salvatore, Grandma’s grandson, against the wishes of her family. Eleven years her senior, he lives in Syracuse, New York State. Their wedding is a gangster-bling affair in a Long Island hotel.
Married life is not what Natalie had imagined. She lands a job working as a secretary to the managing director of an ad agency, to make ends meet. Living happily ever after: is this it?
All three women display versatility and creativity as each copes in her own way with insecure incomes and errant fathers. A whole universe is folded into this slender novel.
Lucy Tertia George’s philosophically acute writing offers the riches of a resonant voice and intimate tone. Her gift for storytelling makes you feel like you’re right there, walking through the generations in each of the three women’s shoes as they endure setbacks and disappointments, all the while managing to make the most of what life has on offer.
Through this exploration of three women, their mixed feelings about marriage and career and the role prescribed for women in society, you end up addressing your own dilemmas and asking what is the answer, when faced by certain choices. Is this a book you’d give to a friend? Yes, it most certainly is.
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