As we get to know the Santorelli family in Tony Taddei’s linked collection The Sons of the Santorelli, watch them try and fail, succeed and fall into disrepair, we learn to love and care for the brothers and their extended family as if they were our own. Because the stories are linked, we get many different perspectives on each brother. Each story serves as an entry point to one particular moment in time, which creates an overall picture of the family as a first-generation brotherhood simply trying to survive.
Some of the stories are stunning, such as “The Winter Bar,” which follows Gino trying to lord it over his neighbors with a snowblower. Taddei juggles many threads at once—the various drunken neighbors, Gino’s philandering with his neighbor’s wife, Vicki, Gino’s overly loving dog, Douglas, and Gino’s wife and small children—and then brings all of the elements to a head in a sharp, twisted and almost tragic climax. Taddei shows restraint here. The story easily could have taken an ugly turn, but instead Taddei makes a move for the emotional pay off, letting Gino wallow in his ineptitude as a husband and father (and dog owner) in the final paragraphs.
In other stories, like “Everyday People,” we see Taddei take a stab at American racial politics. He pairs fifteen-almost sixteen-year-old Italian American Genie Santorelli in 1980 with the beautiful Black Clarice, and the Black Panther, Luther, and white cops, Al and Genie’s father, Gino, who stand between them. Taddei manages to make the story emotionally resonant while still handling the politics of the story masterfully, capturing the adolescent anxiety of having a crush on someone you shouldn’t have a crush on in just a few pages. Although the politics are addressed with a light hand, they are still vitally important to the stories—these stories do not exist in a vacuum. They are commenting on what it means to be an Italian immigrant; to be both a second-class citizen in your new country, struggling with the language and customs, and also to hate and be hated by other groups, such as African Americans. This weaves all the stories together into a lively and politically aware bunch.
The collection brings up many important points about fatherhood and being a good husband. Many of the Santorellis feel trapped in their marriages, yet possess incredible tenderness towards their children, brothers, father, and wives, and this deep familial love is found in stories such as “We Now Conclude Our Broadcast Day,” and “The Great Dream.” This love is returned, or spurned, in stories like “Valiant,” where the sixteen-year-old son of Santorelli brother Carlo, Charlie, acts rebelliously against his father. The Sons of the Santorelli is a book about fathers and sons, and the many ways they betray each other, but manage to love each other all the same.
From a craft standpoint, these stories are carefully penned. The sentences are minimalist and clean, but once in a while Taddei turns a phrase that shakes the reader to their core—“Aida glared at him with a look that could boil water,” for example. The writing is elastic and feels contemporary, although many of the stories take place in the 1930s, 60s, and 70s. The men in these stories speak quickly and sharply, and they snap off the page, loudly proclaiming that they are here to stay.
These stories are full of bad husbands, unruly small children, wise old women, wives who know more than they should, and brothers who would do anything for their kid siblings. Allusions to the mob, womanizing men, gambling, alcoholism, and other seedy pastimes run like a river underneath the linked stories in this collection, but built on top of them is a pure stream of love—love for family, love for country, love for community. Of course, this love occasionally falters—brothers betray brothers, sons betray fathers, but at the core of this collection is a seam of hope. Although many of the stories have difficult endings, such as in “We Now Conclude Our Broadcast Day,” when Angelo’s wife and sons leave him, the final notes of the collection are those of beauty; grandson Genie’s mixed-race daughter representing a new order, patriarch Vittorio’s death symbolizing the end of an era.
Often I found myself stopping after finishing a story to let its message sink in—whether it be sadness at the loss of a family member, or betrayal of a brother, or the promise of new love. These stories resonate in the way that the best stories do, and Taddei has written himself into the new order for both Italian-American fiction and the greater canon at large.
Publisher: Bordighera Press
Publication Date: April 12, 2022
Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo