Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
A great and moving portrait of a family trying to chase their various dreams of making it in America
on February 13, 2012
Norumbega Park tells a terrific story about the four members of the Palumbo family - father, Richie; wife, Stella; son, Jack; and daughter, Joan. At the start of the novel, Richie, an Italian American, stumbles upon a gorgeous old house in the center of a Waspy New England town and decides, striver that he is, that the house is what he needs to capture the American dream. The problem is that the house isn't up for sale. So he befriends the elderly couple who own it and waits for when it will become too much for them. He does get his opportunity when the husband dies, and he manages to convince the couple's adult son that the wife can longer handle the big house on her own. Moving in, Richie is full of hope, believing the house will catapult his family into the kind of success he imagines the previous residents enjoyed. The only problem is that he has two very mixed-up kids. His son, Jack, has no desire to be anything but a high school Lothario. Later, Jack dreams, as his father did, of becoming something more, but it's a great love - the beautiful, remote young Christina - whom he hopes can bring meaning to his life. Richie and Stella's daughter, Joan, is a shy loner who hides out in her room, afraid of the world, and whose only goal is to become a nun. She follows her dream at a tender age before she's done any living. That decision is a great heartbreak to her mother. The novel runs the course of several decades, from when Jack and Joan are children all the way to their midlife crises, when Stella is gone and Richie is borderline senile. Stella becomes most prominent in the middle of the book when we get inside her head as she battles cancer and lets her daughter know she wishes she had been more daring with her life and not retreated to a cloistered abbey. The descriptions of what plays through the mind of someone going through chemo as they assess their lives and their relationships are incredibly powerful. Still, while I really admire Giardina and was very fond of his story collection, Country of Marriage, I almost gave up on this novel in the early sections. There are some creepy scenes - as a boy Jack shows his sister his penis to "educate" her, Richie acts like a stalker as he waits for the elderly couple to turn over the house of his dreams, and one night when Jack is a teenager Stella lingers outside a room and studies her naked son who has fallen asleep on a family room couch after a tryst with his high school girlfriend. But I stayed with it, and was glad I did because the novel really takes off when Jack begins pursuing his great love - the aloof Christina, who works with his father in the pizza parlor Richie had to open as a second occupation to afford the house he overspent on. Joanie's retreat into the abbey is riveting as well. Giardina does a great job portraying what a religious life must feel like. Even though Joan is, at least initially, thoroughly dedicated to her vocation, she tests the boundaries, and on a walk along the borders of the abbey, she meets a young man she's immediately attracted to, and whom she develops a years-long friendship with as she tries to bring him back to the church. Even for a literary novel, there's often very little action and an awful lot of ruminating from the five characters whose point of view the novels shifts between - the four members of the Palumbo family and Jack's girlfriend, then wife, Christina. Sometimes Giardina's prose, especially early on, gets so lyrical I sometimes got lost trying to figure out what the characters were feeling. But these are minor quibbles. The book overall packs a powerful punch about what happens when the great dramas we expect from our lives don't play out and how we cope when the mundane realities of everyday life take over.