Friday, May 29, 2015

College Street by Olindo Romeo Chiocca

This book is so short - it's a novella, really, a series of brief vignettes in a life barely glimpsed. It seems unfair to review it as a novel, as my main complaints would certainly be resolved in a longer book. But, it is what it is.

The story follows a young man, Bruno, who lives with his family in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood (College St. west of Bathurst and the surrounding residential streets). He works at a local (real!) restaurant, Trattoria Giancarlo, where he has been tasked with planning the party for the head chef's upcoming birthday. At the same time, he is planning a trip to Italy. His father's family has recently sold the land they owned, so Bruno must come up with a way to basically smuggle the cash from the sale back into Canada.

Throughout all this there is a romantic subplot, as Bruno breaks up with his girlfriend and begins seeing someone from his childhood who he ran into at a family wedding. There is simply no room in these pages to squeeze any character development, so we don't really know much about this girl except that she's super hot.

On the plus side, the author has a gift for description in a cultural sense, and really gets to the heart of Little Italy so the neighbourhood practically jumps off the page. The atmosphere is definitely perfect. There are also some very funny scenes, like the two funerals (one Italian, one Portuguese) at adjacent churches letting out at the same time, leading to a confused traffic snarl, and eventually to a dramatically bereaved Portuguese woman throwing herself on the wrong coffin.

Unfortunately, the book lacks in character development - there is not a well-drawn character in the book. Bruno is constantly in action, so it is hard to know what he's actually like, and the supporting cast are reduced to one character trait each. In a longer book this would probably be a serious flaw, but here the whole thing is over so fast, it almost doesn't matter.

What I found most frustrating about the story is the lack of conflict. Bruno has two issues to deal with: the party, and the money. But after stating each of these problems, the story is basically him deciding how to solve them, and then doing so. There is no tension, and with no full characters to attach to, it is difficult to get emotionally involved at all.

The book was a quick read, but most likely a forgettable one. I would love to read more from this author, who has a great style, but needs to trust himself to get involved with the characters and write something longer, with a bigger vision.

Three CN Towers out of five.

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