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When the World Was Young by Tony Romano

Rita Giordano
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

The first novel by Romano is a multilayered, often dark and edgy saga of one Italian-American family in the mid-to-later decades of 20th-century Chicago.

When the World Was Young

Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060857927
Author: Tony Romano
Price: $24.95
Length: 309
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-05

When I first saw When the World Was Young, with its nostalgic title and 1950s-vintage book-jacket photo, I have to admit I was expecting one of those sentimental tributes to immigrant family life and simpler times. At least maybe the guy can write, I hoped.

Well, Tony Romano can indeed write, and shame on me for forgetting that business about not judging a book by its cover.

When the World Was Young, the first novel by Romano, a writer and teacher from the Chicago area, is a multilayered, often dark and edgy saga of one Italian-American family in the mid-to-later decades of 20th-century Chicago.

In ways, what this book does is set cliches on their heads. Set largely in what many people would consider a more innocent time -- those 1950s -- When the World Was Young actually moves back and forth across the years. In its leaps forward, the story is picked up by different family members. Through their eyes, we see how little people may know about the inner lives of even those closest to them. These are the secrets that both rupture and bind families.

When the World Was Young is also a tale of the otherness that then and now is so much a part of the immigrant-family experience. Just as the foreign-born try to find a place and sense of belonging in their new country, their American-born or -raised offspring can often find themselves torn between the ways and expectations of their parents and the culture of modern America.

Angela Rosa and Agostino Peccatori are Italian immigrants in an arranged marriage raising their five American-born children. Santo, the eldest at nearly 18, helps at his father's trattoria and is feeling a restlessness he can't quite come up with words for and a tension with his father. Victoria, 16, the only girl, is skipping school, smoking cigarettes, chafing under her mother's expectations and attempts to restrict her. There are Anthony and Alfredo, inseparable as boys, estranged as adults. And finally there is Benito, the doted-on baby of the family.

When we meet them, Angela Rosa and Agostino move about each other in a strange dance, man and wife but occupying separate worlds.

Agostino tells himself that his "divertimentes" -- his affairs -- are harmless. They are one of the ways he deals with the strangeness he feels in this country and even in his own family -- it's a pipeline to his youth and sense of potency. He is not a bad man and he loves his family, but at times, he thinks like a boy. And for that, he will pay a great price.

Angela Rosa's domain is the home, but as tightly as she tries to hold on to her children, she feels them slipping from her. Her limited English isolates her. Her husband keeps his own hours.

"Like the dust that collects at the tops of doors. That's how I feel sometimes," she thinks at one point."

They are a family, but they are also people lost in their own orbits. And then the death of little Benito sears them all.

This happens fairly early in the book, but the death -- as might be the case in a lesser story -- does not bring everyone together. Benito's passing affects each of them differently, bringing a grief that will never fully let any of them go, not even after a new baby, Nicholas, joins the family. Benito becomes real to Nicholas, too, even though the younger child was born two years after the death.

Romano draws characters well. Even Nicholas' voice is strong in the book, though his character is one of the least present. He is the one able to sum up his family, despite essential truths he knows nothing about.

Santo is a conflicted soul, and while not all his conflicts make sense, the reader gets a real feeling for a young man trying to find his way in life and the pain that goes with that search.

There are interesting smaller players in the story, too. Father Ernie, the young priest who befriends Victoria, comes across as fresh, true and most human.

Victoria I found to be the strongest character. Behind her rebellion is a passionate searcher and thinker, a nurturer who ends up making great sacrifices for love. In the end, you might argue that it was a sacrifice she didn't have to make, and that it cheated the one it was made for as well as herself.

But that is part of this book's strength. Families aren't always what they seem. People hurt the people they love. They do things out of love, and sometimes they are the wrong things. Some rifts don't heal. And for all the hurt families can do to each other, love can somehow abide.

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