Frankie Grasso, a grad student in literature at a “solidly second tier” university in Boston, and his mother, Maddalena, an Italian immigrant living in Delaware, talk every night on the phone. They review the day’s progress in their favorite soap operas and then each says, “I love you,” over and over, neither wanting to be the first to hang up.
This quirky ritual, with which Christopher Castellani opens “All This Talk of Love,’’ captures the essence of his rich and entertaining new novel: Life’s twists and turns, coincidences and misunderstandings, reunions and partings are often the stuff of soap opera. But, unlike in a soap opera, love in real life — such as that shared by Maddalena and Frankie — is intense and complicated.
“All This Talk of Love’’ is the third in Castellani’s series of novels about the Grasso family. The first, “A Kiss From Maddalena’’ (winner of the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award), recounts the ill-fated romance between Maddalena Piccinelli and Vito Leone in wartime Italy. The second, “The Saint of Lost Things,’’ follows Maddalena and her husband, Antonio, as they settle in America in the 1950s. “All This Talk of Love’’ finds Maddalena and Antonio in their 70s, with grown children and grandchildren, haunted by ghosts and the specter of loss — a son who died at 15 — Maddelena’s increasing forgetfulness, and, above all, their native village, Santa Cecilia, to which they haven’t returned in 50 years.
The Grassos’ daughter, Prima, has a plan to make everyone, especially Maddalena, happy — the whole family will visit Santa Cecilia together: Prima, her husband, and their kids, Antonio and Maddalena, and even Frankie, who’s distanced himself from the family, doing God knows what up in Boston. (Sleeping with his thesis adviser, for one thing.)
In a lesser novel, or a soap opera, the plump Italian matriarch would cry into her lace handkerchief with gratitude while stirring a pot on the stove. But Maddalena, who happens to be a slender dancer and an indifferent cook, hates Prima’s idea. Why would Maddalena want to see her village, her childhood friends, or her surviving siblings? “She won’t see them old and sick,” she thinks, “not after working so hard, every day, to keep them young and beautiful and full of life in her mind.” In her imperfect but scorching English, Maddalena tells Prima: “Call the airplane company and tell them I died.”
Interwoven between two main story lines — will Maddalena relent? Will Frankie get his act together? — are many more. As Antonio considers retirement, the future of the family’s restaurant is uncertain; Prima worries about her reckless, college-age sons, and the mystery surrounding the death of Antonio and Maddalena’s first son unwinds, layer by surprising layer, throughout the novel.
Castellani, artistic director of Grub Street writing center in Boston, juggles multiple stories and characters with remarkable deftness, never striking a false or forced note. His evocations of the love between parents and their adult children, the bittersweetness of age, and the ambivalence of immigrants toward their old and new homes is nuanced and original.
“All This Talk of Love’’ will, no doubt, invite comparisons with Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.’’ Both novels are family tales told in shifting, close third-person perspective, centering around a contentious family reunion. Some will see “All This Talk of Love’’ as less ambitious than Franzen’s work. But perhaps Castellani’s novel just announces its ambitions more quietly than Franzen’s did. The suspenseful plot of “All This Talk of Love,’’ its delicious readability take nothing away from its emotional depth and power.
Suzanne Koven, who has an MFA in nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars, is a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and writes the monthly “In Practice” column for the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.