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When We Were Strangers: A Novel Paperback – January 25, 2011
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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From Publishers Weekly
Schoenewaldt's heartbreaking debut is the late 19th century immigrant coming-of-age story of poor, plain Irma Vitale. When Irma's mother dies, she warns her 16-year-old daughter that leaving their little Italian village dooms her to die among strangers. A few years later, Irma, frightened of her increasingly lustful father, leaves her village and, armed only with her sewing skills and a small dowry, secures passage on the Servia, where she meets the first in a series of helpful strangers who will color, shape, and add the occasional zest of danger (her face is scarred by the time she disembarks) to her journeys. In America, her friendships with a few determined women--Lula, an African-American cook; Molly, an Irish maid; and Sofia, an Italian nurse--help keep her afloat and moving from a Cleveland sweatshop, through misery and rejuvenation in Chicago, and, finally, to the lush hills in San Francisco. Though some plot turns are played too melodramatically, Irma's adventures and redeeming evolution make this a serious book club contender. (Feb.)
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“Don’t die with strangers,” Irma Vitale’s mother tells her before she dies. But circumstances propel Irma out of her home in the tiny mountain village of Opi, located near Naples, and across the ocean to America. It’s the 1880s, and Irma joins a flood of other immigrants looking for a better life. Resting her hopes on her needlework skills, she stops first in Cleveland, where she ends up making collars in a sweatshop. Next stop is Chicago, where she is hired as a dressmaker by Madame Helene. Irma also meets Signora D’Angelo, who runs a clinic, and this meeting helps send her west on the next part of her journey, in pursuit of a new dream. This is a busy book, and at times Irma’s accumulation of experiences borders on “The Perils of Pauline.” But Schoenewaldt (who lived in Naples for several years) is a good storyteller, and this, plus her attention to physical details, helps make the novel one that readers who like immigrant sagas should enjoy. --Mary Ellen Quinn
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I got anxious at every set back, yet she persevered. Everything that could go wrong did. I was shattered as I saw a foreshadowing of the rape. I had to put the book down a that point, but I came back. I wanted Irma to preserve, to overcome, to not only survive, but thrive.
I enjoyed the character development, the storyline. It was gritty, not always pretty or perfect, it felt real. By the time we got to the end I was so grateful for a happy ending i didn't find it cheesy. It was necessary, it was needed.
This was a beautifully grimy look into the life of early immigrants to the US. But can the same not be said of immigration today?
Edited to add: I did particularly enjoy the strong female cast of characters in the new world, which was a stark contrast to Irma's village where a woman's only hope was to marry (and hope her husband doesn't beat her) or that relatives would support her in old age if she didn't marry. During her travels she meets all manner or single, independant, business women.
There were a few times after Irma left Cleveland and reached Chicago that seemed a bit unbelievable - one of these was the manner in which she, at long last, found a good job in Madame Helene's dressingmaking shop. I overlooked this one questionable plot device. I also felt the fact that Irma was a victim of two separate crimes was a little too contrived and over-the-top, particularly the second.
I loved Irma as the passionate dressmaker, realizing her dream. I could have been happy with that life for her. The sudden vocational change to medicine was not something I readily embraced, but it worked for Irma. After all, life is messy and it doesn't always work out the way we plan. Where we end up is of more importance, and the character of Irma decided this was so.
This novel was well-researched and beautifully written. It's a great read.