Chicago Sun Times spoke with Tony Romano about his debut novel
Tony Romano's leaves out the stereotypes in his look at the lives and
loves of immigrant families
By Stefano Esposito
May 20, 2007
admit to being a little disappointed when I first met Tony Romano, whose
debut novel, When the World Was Young, is set to be released later this
Much of Romano's Italian-American family tale sizzles in1950s Chicago
with all the fiery heat of a serving of pasta all'arrabbiata, a chili
pepper-spiced southern Italian dish.
But I found myself sitting down in early May with a soft-spoken,
unassuming author, sipping lemonade on his suburban Glen Ellyn deck as
we looked out onto an immaculate lawn and he fretted over the carpenter
bees boring into his deck rails.
No Cousin Nunzio lurking nearby, cracking his knuckles, ready to smack a
reporter who says he doesn't like the book.
No Mama Romano in the kitchen, wiping her brow with one hand while the
stubby fingers of the other peel garlic bulbs for the spaghetti sauce.
And you won't find the like in Romano's book, either, even though some
of the overbearing, mouthy characters and Old World vs. New World themes
will seem familiar.
Romano -- who teaches high school English and psychology, and came to
Chicago from Italy as an infant -- was careful to avoid obvious
Italian-American cliches. Maybe he was a little too careful. Among his
editor's suggestions: A little bit more Italian cooking. Romano obliged
her, but he also made sure it helped develop the plot.
"Even the sex, I hope, is done tastefully and it's not gratuitous,"
Romano said, adding that there's no "throbbing and pulsating."
The book is about the Peccatori family, who live on one floor of a
brownstone at Grand and Ashland.
The father, Agostino, is a philandering middle-age tailor with thinning
hair whose life's course was set at age 12, when he watched an Italian
clothes maker fitting a woman for a dress: "He guided her to the back
and I imagined all the measurements being taken. I could see those thick
fingers pressing down the measuring tape along her thigh," Agostino
tells his brother Vince. "... That was the day I decided I would be a
To which his brother adds: "That was the day we should have sewn your
dick to your pants."
There's Agostino's wife, Angela Rosa, who sometimes feels like the "dust
that collects at the tops of doors," and deals with her husband's
infidelity and loneliness by daydreaming about the neighborhood butcher:
"She admired the fluid efficiency of those hands, how they could
instantly calibrate the force needed to split bone or shave fat or just
wrap a square of waxy white paper around a meaty steak in four sharp
tucks that came away so clean you could almost slip the package in your
And there's Santo, the oldest son, who at 18, touchingly still yearns
for a lost closeness with his father. Santo both admires and loathes his
father's way with women. And he spends much of the book struggling
nobly, but awkwardly, to prove that he isn't merely a carbon copy of
The complexities and mysteries of familial bonds are brought into sharp,
agonizing focus when the baby of the family, Benito, suddenly gets sick
and dies. For a stretch in the book, the crushing pain of loss threatens
to overwhelm the story, but then Romano's tale emerges into surprising
and satisfying territory. This includes a wonderfully disturbing scene
in Italy that feels like something out of the cult horror movie
"Rosemary's Baby." To say much more, would give away the plot.
Romano is clearly thrilled that his book is about to appear on
bookshelves. He finished it in 2000, and during the next five years, he
became an "expert on rejection."
"I was pretty much gonna give up," he recalled. "I was at a point where
I thought, maybe it's just not that good. Maybe I'm fooling myself."
But then in December 2005 he got a call from an agent at HarperCollins,
who loved the story.
"It was just a thrill," Romano said of that conversation. "I couldn't
Romano doesn't have a particular audience in mind, but he certainly
wouldn't complain if some of the guys from his old neighborhood - the
ones who sat outside in the warm weather, drinking shots and reminiscing
about the old country, showed up at a book signing.
"I feel like I'm giving voice to those people who would never write a
book, maybe even never read a book," Romano said. "I just loved being
around those kinds of people, who just seemed natural to me. They're not
trying to analyze everything; they are just living their lives."
Stefano Esposito is a Sun-Times staff writer.
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