The Queen of the Big Time by Adriana Trigiani, a New York Times best selling author, was recommended to me by a young woman who actually came from the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, the place where the novel is set. “The author did such a wonderful job of describing how the town actually is,” said the young lady. “I am not a great reader, but I loved this book.”
Intrigued, I bought a copy of The Queen of the Big Time and was surprised to learn that Trigiani has written a number of novels about life in small town America. She is best known around the globe for a series that she has penned called “The Big Stone Gap” trilogy.
The Queen of the Big Time proved to be an easy, fluid read, with a charming story of several Italian families who had emigrated to America in the late 1800s and landed in the small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania. The protagonist of the story, Nella Castelluca is a girl who dreams of going to high school, college, and ultimately becoming a school teacher. She lives on a farm with her industrious parents and four sisters, and has mastered the meaning of hard work and responsibility to the family. When her father shatters his leg in an accident in the local quarry where he works part time to make ends meet, Nella is forced to forego her hopes of going to school in order to keep the farm afloat while her father convalesces. Like her sister, Nella takes a menial job in the local shirt manufacturing company at the age of 15. Despite the fact that her dreams have crumbled, Nella quickly uses her skills and wits to be noticed by the factory's owner, who makes her a foreman at the age of 16.
Aside from joining the labor force, Nella becomes enamored of the handsome Renato Lanzara, the son of a well-to-do family in the town. Although Renato seems quite taken with Nella, who is seven years his junior, she knows that he sees a lot of girls, and has a reputation for being quite a lady's man. When the couple becomes entangled for a short time, Nella is shattered when Renato disappears, leaving her only an empty letter of apology.
While her sisters marry, move into town, and begin to have families of their own, Nella loses herself in work and shuts off her emotions until she is the subject of the attentions of the tall and good- looking Franco Zollerano. Nella looks down at Franco as an uneducated menial worker; his specialty is fixing machines. She longs for someone to tempt her poetric soul and intellectual side. Aside from not seeing Franco as her equal, Nella clings to the romantic ideal of Renato, making it impossible for her to give her heart to another.
The charm of The Queen of the Big Time is in its description of the early 20th century, when people retained Old World beliefs and customs. For example, the novel's title comes from an annual competition between the young women of Roseto. Those girls wishing to compete must sell tickets to the annual church fair, and the one who sells the most is crowned as The Queen of the Big Time. She leads the parade of worshippers through the streets until they come upon the statue of the Virgin Mary, on whom the Queen places a golden crown.
The only problem with the novel is in its pacing. The book opens and spends a good amount of time with Nella's youth and years as a laborer in the factory. Then the novel skips ahead through the next several decades, barely touching upon key events that happen to the Castelucca family. While Trigiani does a nice job of tying up the story's loose ends, the development of the latter part of the book seemed rushed and undeveloped. However, this was not enough of a detriment to keep me from ordering Trigiani's best seller, Lucia, Lucia on-line. The Queen of the Big Time falls into the category of light reading, but it's perfect for summer fare.