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Minding madonnas and mother

By Domenico Pacitti

The Madonnas of President Street by John Sandman. Published in January 2003 by Xlibris Corporation, Philadelphia, 272 pages, US$21.99, ISBN 1 4010 3260 5.

The book begins with Vivian Viola and her 17-year-old daughter Melanie being forced to give up their Manhattan flat and move back  to Vivian's native Brooklyn as a result of rising rents. Set in the mid-eighties, it is narrated in Vivian's voice throughout and features many colourful exchanges that faithfully reflect all the familiar raciness of New York speech.

Their new landlady Mrs Rotoli, the quintessential Italian Roman Catholic widow forever dressed in black, owns a typical house in President Street. Rows of ornamental madonna statues stand on display in cement cases, some of which even have glass doors. Despite having grown up in a similar house in the area, Vivian suggestively admits that she still does not know whether the madonnas are meant to be an expression of faith and good will or bondage and misery.

Entertaining portrayals such as the following reveal Sandman at his best:

"Mrs Rotoli was a cross between Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Ernest Borgnine in McHale's Navy. When she gave you her stare of disapproval, she was Don Corleone dispatching his family's enemy to go to sleep with the fishes, or whatever that phrase was. When she was more light-hearted, she was McHale playing a practical joke on Tim Conway. She put her clammy paw on my sleeve, and her voice fell to a whisper. 'I'll make a prayer that you pay your rent on time.' "

Another is Vivian's recollection of her father's family:

"Vito's family was spread all over Brooklyn. All the grudges and prejudices from Italy came over with them. They were as alienated from each other as they were from America. One family was from Calabria, or someplace like that; another was Neapolitan and if you put them together it was a freak show. Each family had its own sauce for the pasta made from some secret recipe that was like the family coat of arms. If the Calabrian from Canarsie came over for dinner with the Neapolitan from Bensonhurst, they brought their own sauce. Anybody else's wasn't good enough. The moment of truth with my mother and father was when Lois tried to make her own sauce. It was a disaster. From then on Vito began to see that his only kid me wasn't  going to grow up to be a real Italian. Although some people I know would dispute that."

The focus gradually comes to centre exclusively on the generation gap between mother and daughter. Melanie emerges as being endowed with far more common sense and equilibrium than her mother and reproaches her for failing to abide by her self-avowedly strong feminist ideals. Melanie is seen to possess a new sensibility that places her as far apart from her mother as Vivian was from her own parents.

Sandman has pulled off a remarkable tour de force in his convincing female perspective narration, his painstaking depiction of female characters and his scrupulous attention to background detail. This together with the fast-moving dialogue renders the book a pleasure to read.

It is perhaps worth noting that male characters in the novel receive much less attention and are by comparison less vivid to the point of being excessively shadowy at times, though it is difficult to say to what extent this might reflect a deliberate ploy on the part of the author or narrator.

Sandman has published four previous novels: Eating Out, Fords Eat Chevs, The Brief Case of a Fat Man and Declining Gracefully. He was born in Camden, New Jersey and works as a reporter for Securities Industry News, NY.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on May 25 2003.