Varina Palladino’s Jersey Italian Love Story
by Terri-Lynne DeFino
published by HarperCollins/William Morrow on Feb 14, 2023
AMBER LOVE 25-FEB-2023 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies).
An utterly delightful and surprising family drama—think Moonstruck and My Big Fat Greek Wedding set in New Jersey—about a boisterous, complicated Italian family determined to help their widowed mother find a new boyfriend.
Lively widow Varina Paladino has lived in the same house in Wyldale, New Jersey, her entire life. The town might be slightly stuck in the 1960s, when small businesses thrived and most residents were Italian, but its population is getting younger and the Paladinos are embracing the change. What Varina’s not embracing, much to her ninety-two-year-old mother’s dismay, is dating. Running Paladino’s Italian Specialties grocery, caring for her mother, and keeping her large, loud Jersey Italian family from killing one another takes up all of Varina’s energy anyway.
Sylvia Spini worries about her daughter Varina being left all alone when she dies. Sylvia knows what it is to be old and alone, so when her granddaughter, Donatella, comes to her with an ill-conceived plan to find Varina a man, Sylvia dives in. The three men of the family—Dante, Tommy, and Paulie—are each secretly plotting their own big life changes, which will throw everyone for a loop.
Three generations of Paladinos butt heads and break one another’s hearts as they wrestle with their own Jersey Italian love stories in this hilarious and life-affirming ode to love and family.
I now have a new favorite book. Terri-Lynne DeFino captured parts of my memories and heartbreaking milestones in Varina Palladino’s Jersey Italian Love Story. On page one, I laughed out loud four times. Fortunately the cat was the only one around and he knows I’m crazy.
Despite what you might think from the title, title character Varina does not find new romantic love; instead she finds a whole side of herself that blossomed because of a friendship. The only reason I give that one spoiler is because I don’t want someone to pick up the book expecting one thing and being disappointed. Regardless, there is so much love in this book, if it were a cup, it would runneth over.
Of course as a fellow Jersey Girl, I came to DeFino’s book with a critical eye. I’ve seen New Jersey so terribly portrayed with stereotypes that no one knows what it’s really like here. First thing is that her setting is on the side close to the Hudson River and New York City where I still have a twig of the family tree connected to that region. My family relocated to the “sticks” on the western side closer to the Delaware River when I was 10. Somehow, all the goddamn planes going to Newark fly over this backyard too.
I was also ready to pick apart DeFino’s Jersey Italian (or J.I. as she calls it) representation the way Sherlock Holmes would a crime scene. Here’s the thing: I don’t have one drop of Italian in me, but we were raised with a heavy dose of it because of my Gram’s husband, the only grandfather I ever had. They were married before I was born. Anyway, he and his family were the dark-haired, tan-skinned, food-centric Italians from Elizabeth, New Jersey. I preferred all those pastas, cheeses, basil, and garlic over any of the meats of my other people. When my father would make London Broil, I would cover it in ketchup and milk (not even kidding) and swallow it like a snake because I could not chew that vile leather he called food. My mom, however, is a A+ cook.
DeFino gives readers four generations (at least) of Jersey Italians of the Spino-Palladino family. Transport to a town that’s really a city—where the population is still small enough that everyone knows everyone’s business. If people didn’t move when they grew up, there are grudges and feuds that go back to grade school. Such is the case for the main gay character Paulie Vittone. When Paulie came out to his parents, they kicked him out and the Palladino’s took him in without a second thought. He and Donatella Palladino had been best friends their whole lives and it’s their relationship that carries the story from beginning to end.
Sylvia, the great-grandmother or Nonina, is an absolute spitfire at age 92. She and Donatella have a special bond which eventually comes out in one of Nonina’s chapters, but otherwise is a deep secret no one alive in the family knows. Keeping secrets is something that’s done. It’s a practice that eats away in bites so small and slowly moving that one day, you realize a big chunk of your heart has been carrying that painful weight your whole life.
Sylvia’s daughter and Donatella’s mother, Varina is in her 70’s and she’s not looking for love. She’s looking for change. She’s waiting for one day to be different. One week where she doesn’t know exactly what steps her feet will take as she runs the Italian specialty market, Palladino’s, which she and her husband Dino had started as a young couple.
In the story, Dino has been dead for quite some time. Varina has her biological kids plus Paulie and grandchildren; a brother Thomas and his family; one son’s ex-wife Pandora (a Greek!) who is strangely still part of the family and at all their functions; of course her mother Sylvia; and Gabriella is Dante and Pandora’s only child. When Varina makes a friend for the first time in her life since she was a child, she’s so out of sorts with the idea of it, that keeps Ruth Cooperman a secret from her family for a couple of months.
Ruth and Varina meet at a travel agency which apparently still exists. They discover they’re booked on the same cruise through France. They become best friends from that point forward bringing Ruth’s highfalutin Manhattan and Jewish style to the Palladino’s world—and it works incredibly well.
Paulie’s sexuality takes up a lot of real estate in the book as he and Donatella get their own chapters. DeFino approaches it with care while still exploring what it was like for a boy to grow up being called slurs and getting beat up regularly. Paulie is also able to accept Donatella and her erratic behavior. No one ever knows if she’s coming or going. She’s always in trouble. She’s even stolen from the family—la famiglia—the people who try to have each other’s backs for life and in death. DeFino comes up with a plausible and contemporary explanation for Donatella’s behavior which others view as selfish or self-centered; she’s bipolar. When Donatella takes off, she does it because she truly things her famiglia would be better off without having to deal with all her shitty problems. Yet, she crawls back when she has nowhere else to go where people would love her. Paulie is that compass point for her. They love each other so much. She’s the only woman that would define Paulie as bisexual rather than gay. Ultimately, while she’s a love for him, she’s not the love of his life. Who is ends up being a huge character evolution.
Each chapter begins with DeFino’s vocabulary entries. They are hysterical! Readers who are interested in slang and pidgin languages will certainly appreciate these. DeFino explains what pidgin is as a mash-up of languages such as Italian and English with specifically regional dialects like whether a Jersey Italian lives closer to New York or Philadelphia.
Some favorites are:
Cornoot: the gold or sometimes red horn placed in cars and as a necklace charm to ward off the maloik (another favorite), the evil eye.
Madonn’: comes from Madonna mia or “my Madonna” or as someone might exclaim, “Mother of God!” It’s an expression of frustration and prayer to the Virgin Mary for relief.
Fanabola!/Afanabola!: comes from Vai fa Napoli! which literally means, “Go to Naples!” and apparently that’s a Sicilian’s idea of Hell because of the poverty, not the city itself.
Ffangul/Vaffangul/Baffangul: come from Vai fare en culo which means “go do it in the ass” but the three levels of the curse are typically used as Fuck!/Fuck you!/Go fuck yourself! in New Jersey. You’ve probably seen heard and seen this demonstrated with the gesture of flicking a hand under the chin. Everyone knows this one, but it’s great to learn the roots.
Whether these classic slang entries are supposed to be from author DeFino or Varina’s grandson, Vincent, I honestly don’t know for certain. The epilogue focuses on a teenage Vincent and how he collects words he hears his family using. The reason I wish I knew whose perspective it’s from is because of the entry for basil (bas’nigol). There’s an anecdote for the word bas’nigol instead of an etymology lesson. I want to quote the best part, but I’ll let you read it for yourself. GO READ THIS BOOK!
Read this book! My brain is stuttering trying to find the words to summarize this reading experience. DeFino makes telling a multi-cast story appear effortless. She presents characters with their own baggage and mistakes as well as family drama that makes for some tense Sunday dinners. It’s brilliant.
Rating: 5 stars (I’d give it more if possible)
If you want to hear some fun pidgin, watch Sebastian Maniscalco’s standup specials on Prime, Netflix, and YouTube.