Advice for Italian Boys. Anne Giardini.

Giardini, Anne. Advice for Italian Boys. HarperCollins Toronto, 2009. F;3/18.

I was surprised to find that Ms. Giardini lives in my hometown of Vancouver, is the daughter of novelist Carol Shields, is qualified as a lawyer, has been active in literary associations and in legal aspects of women’s issues, and is president of a Canadian subsidiary of a US lumber company. This because I found Advice, her second novel, oddly lacking dramatic coherence. I mean that interesting, surprising, and emotional characters and themes pop up, but it’s as though having walked through life’s market and gathered and saved, as fiction writers do, a basket of wonderful ideas and experiences, when Ms. Giardini tossed them together and gave it all a good shake the resulting salad didn’t support a completely satisfying experience.

Quickly reading reviews to refamiliarize myself with the plot, I see I’m in the minority in holding that opinion, but that’s my story…

Nicolo Pavone is a pointedly nice Italian boy in his 20s living at home with his parents and grandmother. He’s religious, athletic, and not-bad-looking. He is consistently if not deeply introspective. But something is missing. His life feels boring and lacks direction. The grandmother Filomena gives the nominal advice in the form of enigmatic Italian maxims: itruoni ‘e marzu risbiglianu i cursini (the rumbling thunder of March awakens the snakes). Whatever that means. But Nicolo eventually absorbs the advice he needs from the characters and events in his life. Whatever that means.

He has one brilliant brother who goes to law school but gets caught in a minor misrepresentation of his grades, and an older one who of necessity marries his energetic Italian girlfriend and foresees a life of imprisonment. Nicolo is a fitness coach and his clients are helpful, querulous, exploitative, and/or neutral. He meets and dates an attractive thoughtful girl. His parents are a traditional Italian couple who go to church every Sunday and then come home, put on a record, and dance together lovingly in the living room. The father takes meticulous care of their small suburban house. So we have lower middle-class, deeply ethnically conservative, decent, loving, fictional people, and Nicolo coming of age, a bit belatedly.

Okay. What Advice is Nicolo to take? (PLOT ALERT) Bingo: his brother takes a year off law school, buys a bakery, and all three brothers jump into the business and live happily ever after (END PLOT ALERT). What? What happened to Nicolo’s twin brother-and-sister clients who falsely accused him of sexual impropriety and then got rich? There is foreshadowing that he gets married presumably to the thoughtful girlfriend but what about his homosexual feelings and experiences? What about the ethically ambiguous behaviour of the younger brother that just gets left behind? Was all this and also the enigmatic maxims of the grandmother and her nicely-described dream and Italian rural experiences only set decoration? Is it all just about quit being preoccupied with your imaginary troubles and get a business going, and everything will be fine?

Maybe I was half asleep during some important part of this story and maybe if I had an Italian heritage things here would make more sense. To be fair there were lot of wonderful ideas and experiences in the narrative of this story. And in the quite long “About the Author”, ”About the Publisher” etc. section at the end there were some nice sentiments expressed by Ms. Giardini:

A well-functioning couple comes to decisions, and stays on or shifts course as a result of subtle signals from one to the other. Most of this is silent and almost invisible … In the best marriages, I think, this giving and receiving of advice is done tacitly, in kindness and trust.

Her mother the novelist told her:

“… to write in the most intimate way possible, as if I were whispering into the ear of someone I love.” and “Why write all if not to set down exactly what you mean, to come as close to the truth as words will allow? “

Nice ideas about, and good, Advice. I wish they had been somehow inherent in Anne Giardini’s characters and story. I wonder if her lasting contribution will come from the same creative territory as her mum’s, or not? 7.4/7.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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