If it sounds a little facile to say that Anthony Giardina’s chronicle of a New England family is about people who are never sure which way to go and often take the wrong path, well, that’s life, isn’t it? The future and all the ambitions that go with it — marriage, family, career — are a calculated risk. That’s the drama of living, and the drama of “Norumbega Park.”
It starts, appropriately, with the family getting lost. The year is 1969. Richie Palumbo, a rising manager with a defense contractor at the height of the Vietnam War, is driving his family to a Thanksgiving dinner when he finds himself in Norumbega, a quaint little town outside Boston. He sees a stately three-story house, falls in love with the place and sets out to acquire it by predatory means. It’s a bold and ruthless move, and he gets what he wants, but he also winds up paying more than the place is worth.
Like the characters in Cheever — the title is a subtle nod to “Bullet Park” — the Palumbos are soon trapped in suburbia, but their growing sense of enclosure comes more from within than without. Actually, they’re a lot closer in spirit to the world of Henry James. They overanalyze everything, unsure how to achieve the destinies they set for themselves, torn between action and restraint, never sure of the right direction until they’ve passed it.
They are hungry people, too, a fact that tends to be registered through how they express themselves sexually. Richie is more passionate in public than he is at home; his wife, Stella, is mousy and conventional on the outside but fleshy, orgasmic and guilt-obsessed in private. Their son, Jack, grows up to become the local stud, a fact that will hobble his future relationship with the one woman he actually cares about. The daughter, Joan, goes the opposite direction: She’s in love with God and the church and becomes a nun, only to have her libido kick in just as she’s preparing to take her vows.
Somewhere in the middle of the novel, there’s a doctor who says Jack has “the potential for ruin and the potential for grace.” This also suggests the trajectory of the novel, as the family tries to forge some wobbly path away from one and toward the other.
There’s a lot of plot as Giardina scrapes away at the crust of these lives as they mature and wither over a span of some 40 years, but this is a novel that really lives and breathes below the surface. Giardina is an artist who delicately but firmly presses every moment for its truth and passes up every chance for easy sentimentality. There isn’t a false note in this vividly melancholy book.
Welch is the book reviewer for the Free-Times in Columbia, S.C.
By Anthony Giardina
Farrar Straus Giroux. 325 pp. $27