Really good novels about Italian-Americans are few and far between. There’s an unfortunate tendency in some circles that feel that novels about Italian-Americans “don’t sell” unless they’re about the Mafia. I suppose this was because of the huge success of “The Godfather” in 1969 and the subsequent films based on the novel in the early 1970s. Ironically, the author of that hugely successful novel had written what I feel is one of the best Italian-American novels 4 years previously. That novel was “The Fortunate Pilgrim.” A critical success in its day, the book didn’t sell all that well, which caused, according to Puzo himself, him to sit down and consciously write a bestseller. He had a family to feed, after all, and a job as a government clerk at the time.
This is a beautifully written novel with a wonderful story about a widowed matriarch of an Italian-American family in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood struggling with immigrant life and trying to raise what is in a sense two families - the children of her dead husband, and the children of her second husband, a man who was absent for most of the children’s lives, only to return home and wind up going insane and to be shut away in an asylum. The novel centers on the mother, Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo and her growing children, trying to navigate this new world with its new values and customs. The children are thoroughly Americanized, most illustrated by the oldest daughter Octavia. The story follows the family from the Depression era all the way through the early years of World War II and it is a wonderful portrait of tenement life and the lives of immigrants in New York City who struggle with this conflict between old world values and the values of the new world they now find themselves in. There is a Mafia element here as well, but its not the focus, thankfully. This is not a “Mafia novel” by any stretch of the imagination but its presence in the story was a fact of life in those days in the Italian-American immigrant community - and it seems to hang like a specter, a remnant of the old world which now also finds itself trying to ingratiate itself into the new.
This, along with “Christ in Concrete” by Pietro di Donato, should be read by those interested in good Italian-American fiction and who are tired of the same old “Mafia” genre that seems to get most of the attention. This is the book that shouldhave made Puzo famous. A wonderful book and highly recommended.