Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani (Ballentine Books, 2003)
If a summer romance novel is what you are craving to read as you sit by the pool or beach, Adriana Trigiani's Lucia, Lucia is a perfect choice. Set in 1950 New York City, the novel is about a young woman, Lucia Sartori, who is determined to have a career and be able to support herself, an unusual choice for a girl who was raised in a conservative Italian home. Lucia's parents expect her to marry into a respectable Italian household, and raise grandchildren for them to cherish as they adore her.
When the elderly Lucia begins to share her story with a young neighbor named Kit, Lucia reveals that she was the only daughter in the Sartori family, leaving her with four older brothers who protect and torment her. Although she did not attend college, Lucia was a talented seamstress, specializing in bead work decoration, working in B. Altman's “Special Order Department,” under the direction of the soon to be famous Hollywood designer, Delmarr.
What makes Lucia, Lucia a better than average romance novel is that Trigiani does a superb job in transporting the reader back to an era when women could go into department stores and have their wardrobes custom ordered, in the materials and measurements especially custom built for the consumer. The demise of such wonderful service occurred when businesses moved to making clothes by the thousands, giving women no choice but to “buy off the rack.” But in Lucia's day, the seamstresses took pride in the executions of the designs created by their bosses, and offered well-regarded suggestions in the improvement of the garments. Lucia found gratification in her career and satisfaction in saving a nice nest egg out of her salary.
And then, there is love. Lucia has been dating her handsome fiance, Dante DeMartini, since high school. His family runs a local bakery, and Dante plans to continue to work there after they are married. But not only will Dante continue toiling in the family business, his mother announces when the DeMartinis come to discuss wedding plans at the Sartori home, the couple will live with the DeMartinis, and Lucia will be expected to leave her cherished post at B. Altman's. Suddenly Lucia understands that if she marries Dante, she will be trapped under the thumb of a domineering mother-in-law, and she impulsively breaks off the engagement, knowing how much she is hurting Dante who has waited so long for her. She is humiliating her family as well, who had been ecstatic of her choice of spouse.
As Lucia, known in the neighborhood as “the most beautiful girl in Greenwich Village,” watches her friends at B. Altmans find their perfect mates and move on, she wonders if she will ever find the right man who will give her the space that she needs for personal freedom. And then she meets the debonair and wealthy John Talbot. Talbot does not pursue Lucia immediately, but teases her, appearing and disappearing from her life. One minute he kisses her wantonly, and the next he is dating another debutante in the neighborhood. His behavior, of course, only makes Lucia want Talbot all the more.
When Lucia's father tells his daughter that Talbot is not a trustworthy man, and certainly not the right choice for her, Lucia blows up and says cruel things to the man who is only trying to protect her. As many young women must do, Lucia is forced to make decisions about her personal life that she feels will lead her in the best direction for her.
Lucia, Lucia offers the reader a lot of things to ponder. For example, the novel begins in 1950, only a few years after World War II. Women began to enter the work force during the war since so many men were fighting abroad. Giving women a taste of financial independence as well as instilling a sense of what it is like to be productive outside of the home, was the impetus for a major societal shift that began to occur.
Trigiani points out that many women did work prior to the war, but they were considered home makers first. My grandmother, Ida Dakelman, had a tiny office in my grandfather's pharmacy in Highland Park. where she worked assiduously as his bookkeeper. My grandpa's store was three blocks from our house, and I would ride my bike up to the store frequently for a Costa's Brown Cow (delicious), and an opportunity to catch my grandmother at the store. However, I never considered my grandmother to be a working woman. Trigiani reminded me of the fact that my grandmother actually was a partner with her husband in the business, but a “silent partner.” (At least at work, at home we often heard her thundering voice screaming, “Lou! Lou!” when she needed him to do something for her)
Trigiani also did her homework on the fashion industry in the 1950s, on the different communities within New York City, and on a time when women wore white gloves and hats daily. There was a formality that we almost never experience today, and which few young people even know about. And, there was an aura about the people who lived with that formality which has been lost in the modern age.
I am very impressed with Trigiani's story telling, creation of warm and realistic characters to whom many of us can relate, and even some of her family's Italian recipes, which she has included in the story. This is truly a delightful novel that sends us back to a time and place which is a slightly familiar to baby boomers.