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Thursday, January 20, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: The Fortunate Pilgrim

The Fortunate PilgrimAs I mentioned here, my group kicked off the 2011 BPL Book Discussions with The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo earlier this week.

This meeting also marked the 10th Anniversary of my book club at the BPL.  We started with 2 people and me, and we now fill the room each month (15-20 people), with those 2 original ladies still making most of the discussions.

Originally published in 1965, The Fortunate Pilgrim is the tale of Lucia Angeluzzi-Corbo and her family as she lives in the Italian tenements of NYC from the years just before the Depression into WWII.  It is a immigrant story, but it is also a personal one, as Puzo has noted.  It is the fictionalized story of Puzo's own mother, her strength, and filial love despite great obstacles.  It was also only his second novel, written before any of the Godfather novels which made him a household name.

We had a dynamic discussion of this novel, the highlights of which I will list:
  • About 2/3 of the group absolutely loved this novel while the remaining third felt it was "so-so." 
  • We began talking in depth about this novel as an example of a universal immigrant story.  One participant said she knew from the summary that she would love the book because she enjoys the social history aspect of immigrant stories.  She went on to note how each wave of immigrant goes through the same thing. This led to some great sharing by the group about their family immigrant stories. We talked about the language and customs, the strength in the family, and the sacrifices of the older generations for the success of the younger that all immigrant groups share.
  • I steered the conversation toward today and asked how the immigrant situation is different today. We isolated some big differences.  First, the entire country's standard of living is much higher now than it was in the pre-WWII years.  Immigrants know they are poor and  there is a stigma with this.  In the novel, the space between the rich and the poor is much smaller.  Also we talked about how immigrants do not always stop in the urban centers anymore.  The tenements in The Fortunate Pilgrim served as a support network and community of people from the old country; however, quite often immigrants today go straight to the isolated suburbs.  They cannot create a safe community right away.  Finally, in Lucia's time, the mother stayed home and kept an iron grip on the family, knew everything the children were doing, and was there to control everything; however, now often both mother and father of immigrant families must go to work right away, leaving the kids to flounder in their new land.
  • We moved on to Puzo's writing style.  First, it is important to note that most of the group had not read Puzo before, but all were familiar with The Godfather at least through the movies.  The most striking think about the style of this book is its details.  Puzo spends the vast majority of his time writing about the minutiae of daily life.  We read about the women gathering in the summer evenings, the games the children play, the domestic details, but we get very little detail on the major events: the weddings, deaths, funerals, etc... At the same time the point of view skips around constantly and each chapter reads like a separate vignette.  While some participants did not like the fact that the intense level of details was not uniform, others speculated that since Puzo based this on his own recollections of his childhood that it made sense that he focused on the domestic details, as it would have been what he most remembered.  Another participant said she usually does not like when a book skips around in its point of view, but the intense domestic details created a center that held the entire story together for her.
  • Characters were discussed throughout and at length. Here are some comments I want to share.  One participant talked about how the women of the tenement were a "Greek chorus" to her. Octavia, the eldest daughter was a "truth teller;" she was strong, her mother's right hand; she sacrificed herself but was never upset about it.  We were mixed on whether or not Vinnie committed suicide.  We saw Larry as "making it," in the the legitimate side of the mob.  We also loved his scenes which open the novel, as he rode the horse in front of the train.  It was called "extraordinary" by someone, and all agreed that it drew you into the the world of the story quickly. And finally, Gino who escapes.  We felt he was the "Puzo" character.  We especially liked the scene where he "flies;" it really foreshadowed the freedom he found by joining the army later in the novel.
  • On the other hand, one participant felt the overwhelming level of detail overshadowed the characters.  She wanted less detail about life and more about how Lucia kept going.  Others chimed in that at the time of the novel's writing (1965) people did not talk about their feelings as much.  You just did what you needed to survive and took each thing as it came at you.
  • We discussed the title and how Lucia, despite her hardships and losses, ends the book quite "fortunate."  The family's goal from the start was to leave the tenements and buy a home on Long Island and as the book ends, they are moving into that house.  This is not a story without great loss, troubles, and obstacles, but overall, Puzo knows his family was among the most fortunate of the time and he carries this tone into the title of his novel.
  • I just mentioned the ending.  The feelings about this ending were mixed among the group.  People were happy that the family (what was left of it) made it to Long Island, but many wished there was more about what happened when they moved.  We talked about how Lucia became a pilgrim again by leaving her close knit community and beginning a new journey in Long Island.
  • We ended by talking about the overall tone of the novel.  Phrases that were thrown out were as varied as hopeful, depressing, struggles of a family, survival, and family obligation.
  • A participant had the last word with the following statement which I feel sums up the book well, "none of us would be here if someone did not have the courage to go at it alone."
Readalikes:  We compared The Fortunate Pilgrim with our discussions of 2 other stories of immigrants in NYC, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and North River by Pete Hamill.  The later also deals directly with issues of Italian immigrants.  Check their respective posts for more readalikes too.

Obviously their are thousands of American immigrant experience novels out there, but a few others that I would suggest for book clubs are The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez.  While Brooklyn and North River are very similar to The Fortunate Pilgrim in time frame and both deal with European immigrants, these three titles hit at a more varied immigrant experience.  However, together, these 5 suggestions show how despite their difference of origin, their immigrant stories are more similar than different.

With this novel's focus on food and its tenement setting, I would also suggest the nonfiction title 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman.  Here, Ziegelman looks at a similar setting and time frame of 5 different nationalities of immigrants.  It would be a great choice for readers of Puzo's novel who are looking for a completely true account.

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