Eleanor Amore, the title character of Suzanne Palmieri’s The Witch of Little Italy may be a witch, but her opening line is less than magical: “Eleanor Amore took the home pregnancy test on Christmas Eve in her mother’s room at the Taft Hotel.” It’s such an ordinary scene—an unmarried pregnant college girl, an unknowing boyfriend (who is physically abusive), and an unsupportive mother. What an unlikely place for a magical journey to begin. But in The Witch of Little Italy, magic appears in the most surprising and the most familiar of places.
The Witch of Little Italy focuses on Eleanor (Elly, once she returns to the Bronx) as she discovers her magical gifts, her extended family, and her soon to be husband (who has been waiting patiently for Elly to return to New York City for over a decade). Part of this discovery is uncovering family secrets. Why can’t Aunt Itsy speak? Who are the laughing and crying children Elly hears throughout the apartment building? When will Elly get her memory back?
A note addressed to Elly does a good job of explaining her challenge: “Would you be a darling and fix this whole mess for me? It’s all gone to hell in a handbasket, hasn’t it? I’d appreciate it. And, tell them I love them. Tell them Mama loves them so, so much.” The note is signed Great-Grandma Margaret. By this point in the book it doesn’t matter that Margaret died in 1945, long before Elly was born.
Clearly, Elly is not the only witch in the story. In fact, all of the Amore women have magical gifts, and for the most part, Palmieri weaves the magic in both effortlessly and believably. Palmieri chooses her magics wisely. Often, magic is tied to memory, and spells causing people to forget are common.
Eleanor, who spent part of her childhood living with her grandmother and her aunts, has little memory of this time or of her extended family. When asked about it and what she remembers, she replies: “I remember doing crochet… and cartwheels… Just the beach and the sea air, damp sand and cartwheels.” Is it magic that clouds these memories or is this simply a 20-something woman with too much on her mind struggling to recall her childhood? It’s magic, but the fact it could be either adds to the believability.
Because of Elly’s faulty memory, the story unfolds almost as a mystery, with Elly trying to piece together the past while she tries to figure out her own present. From finding out about the “Day the Amores Died” to discovering that her Uncle George was more than a smelly old man, Elly has to remember and then everyone will have to live with the consequences.
All the secrets simply add to the mystery. One of Elly’s aunts reminds and warns: “We suffered our own tragedies and kept our own secrets. Secrets that scattered pieces of us into the winds for the sparrows to collect and keep, until the day the girl returned.”
Another reason the magic works is because Palmieri seems to play with the idea of what a witch is. Is a witch a wise woman or a woman who casts spells and sees the future? Certainly all the Amore woman have the Sight, in varying degrees, but sometimes the magic simply seems to be wisdom: “There isn’t a magical ‘Take Me Home’ spell. No ruby slippers. Once you’re grown, you can’t go home again.” And sometimes the real becomes magical—because as an adult there can be something magical (at least in the Amore’s world) about cartwheeling through summer and childhood or eating fresh strawberries and toast for dinner.
There a few distractions, such as an over the top “Never let me go” declaration from Elly to her soon to be love interest Anthony (who seems a little too good to be true) that belongs more in a soap opera than in a such finely crafted book. The predictability with Elly’s friend Liz. But even though it may be easier to believe in the Sight than it is to believe that a boyfriend as perfect as Anthony could actually exist, the story exhibits a hopeful charm and warmth with unexpected touches of humor that make it an enchanting summer read.
The Witch of Little Italy is Palmieri’s first book, and despite some tragic elements—the abusive boyfriend, World War II, untimely deaths—the story is almost ethereal, often as weightless as the snow or fog or summer breezes that flow through it. This language, that often seems to simply dance and float across the pages, goes a long way in creating a beautifully told story.