The premise of The Tale of Lucia Grandi: The Early Years by Susan Speranza sounded incredibly promising: a 110-year-old centenarian recounts the details of her life to a biographer. The book begins with an eager, young graduate student wanting to record a biography of Lucia’s life – excellent, I thought, that could be interesting, a biographer’s insights and observations, but the story is told in Lucia’s first person, not the biographer’s. In fact, the biographer disappears completely after the prologue. Lucia also warns us at the very beginning that maybe she’ll “just make it all up,” which made me wonder if unreliable narrator issues would come into play – but no, that is dropped as well. Also, Lucia is 110 at the beginning of the novel, but was born in 1951. Why is she so old? Why are we getting her story from 2061? How does that color her perception of the 1950s and 60s? What’s the world like 5o years from now? What does that add to the story? It seems to have no bearing on the rest of the novel, though, so the choice seems a little arbitrary, unless it is to become evident in later volumes of Lucia’s life.
What the reader is left with is a somewhat disjointed telling of all Lucia’s sufferings, and sometimes the sufferings of older family members whose sad stories are recounted incompletely before they disappear completely from the narrative. Pretty much everyone in the novel is horrible and/or is made to suffer horribly. The victimy mentality was a little much to take – I mean, I get it. Lots of people have super horrible lives. Suburbia was and is no idyllic land of merriment. But I need a reason to keep reading, and more awful things happening isn’t a compelling one for me.
Lucia did remind me a little of Sally Draper on Mad Men, if her father was a police officer instead of an ad exec, and if they lived out on Long Island instead of in Westchester. I kept longing for a similar tone or narrative flow, but it was not to be. Where Mad Men succeeds in its melancholic disenchantment, with flawed, searching characters and glimmers of hope and growth, Lucia Grandi fails. Many of the characters (with, of course, the exception of Lucia, and the few people she likes), particularly the parents, are not merely flawed, they’re just awful. Their humanity is missing.
This book is still not without potential. Despite her inability to find much joy, Lucia’s life was interesting, and I did want to know what happened to her, and if she’d ever overcome all her hardships. I think the novel might have worked a little better if it had been told in the third person – no 5-year-old does that much naval-gazing on her own, but we all can find reasons for things we did as children once we have the perspective and experience as adults – or perhaps as a conversation between biographer and subject, similar to The Thirteenth Tale – where the reliability of the narrator can be toyed with. I was disappointed that that little kernel never reappeared.
To sum up, you should read Lucia Grandi if:
- You love the literary realists and enjoyed Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser.
- You like your characters to suffer. It’s character-building.
- You’ve been missing your time spent with the strict nuns in Catholic school.
- You don’t mind a few caricatures for characters.
- You’re looking for a fast, light read.
- You like a little hope and redemption in your novels.
- You like all reasons for narrative choices to be self-evident.
- You believe every character should contribute to the overall narrative in some way.