It is so easy to get lost in a story that is, above all, authentic. Advice for Italian Boys by Vancouver’s Anne Giardini glows with authenticity – her characters ring true, even to someone without a drop of Italian blood in her body. The characters are the story: Nicolo, a young man battling through the travails of self-discovery; his nonna, who, even while trying to figure out her own place in this family, this country, this story, dispenses the proverbi that are the signposts on Nicolo’s journey to becoming his own man. Every character in Nicolo’s story, whether minor or major, is exquisitely and completely drawn.
Giardini is able to take the minutiae of the daily life of an Italian man, and make it relevant to the reader. His clients at the gym are so cleverly rendered that the reader knows exactly what type of people they are – we all know someone like the divorcee, Monica, who hires Nicolo to help her get back into shape so she can attend her ex-husband’s second wedding. We may also have come in contact with someone like Patrick- frenetic, driven and hyperkinetic.
We even recognize the woman who is in line in front of Nicolo’s brother Enzo at the bakery. How many times have we stood in that line, waiting to do something for that unappreciative someone and think to ourselves, “My life is passing me by? This is not what I want for me.“
Nicolo is an introspective hero. He looks to others when he needs advice. When his clients ask for advice, he often passes on the aphorisms of his nonna, unwilling to offer any personal thoughts. When his friend announces he is getting married, there is a moment where Nicolo wishes he could ask if his friend thinks it is right, but he stays silent. It is a poignant moment, one where Nicolo wonders if perhaps punching his friend on the shoulder as a gesture of solidarity would be appropriate, but in the end, he does nothing but walk away.
Throughout the book, we see Nicolo gaining strength, though. Every so often, he breaks out a bit of advice and a few opinions. He meets Zoe, who steadfastly refuses to offer her opinion on anything, saying that choices are personal. Nicolo admires her for not judging others, and she corrects him, saying that she is undoubtedly judgmental, she just doesn’t say anything.
In a way this is a book about a young man from an insular family that has always done the same things, the same way. Tradition is important. As Nicolo, and his brother Enzo, come more in contact with those around them, they see that their are opportunities for them that are so much more far-reaching than what has gone before.
P.S.The sub-story of Nonna and Paola, Nicolo’s mother, is brilliant as well. It is not only the men who are shucking off the old world and changing. This subplot alone is worth the price of the book.