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My Father Came from Italy

by Maria Coletta McLean

This is a gentle, fragrant little memoir with a powerful kick: the immense sentimental appeal of visiting one’s unspoiled ancestral village in the Old Country. In this fantasy dream we all have of our ethnic roots, the set design is Martha Stewart and the casting is Zorba the Greek. The streets are frozen in time and the fields are blanketed in luxuriant blossoms. Gypsy dancers perform impromptu dances in the local café while sturdy locals summon up mesmerizing family stories over peach wine and hearty native fare.

My Father Came from Italy offers up just such an ideal family Eden, with perhaps one too many descriptions of lace-darning grandmothers and freshly uncorked wine bottles. It’s the story of first-time author Maria Coletta McLean’s journey from her home in Toronto to the tiny town of Supino in southern Italy. McLean’s ailing father provides the chief motive for the trip; in 1927, at age 18, he had left his birthplace of Supino for a new life in Canada. Over 60 years later, McLean takes her father and her own family back to the territory of their past.

McLean does a good job of controlling the pathos in this situation – she resists the temptation to dwell on every emotion or long-lost family anecdote – and the rhythm of the book is mostly delightful. But she hasn’t done justice to Supino. McLean’s bucolic little balm of a burg would make even Peter Mayle blush. No doubt Supino is as genuinely full of sun-splashed flower beds, succulent meals, scented twilights, and soul-satisfying local customs as McLean recounts – but oy, is no one in this town ever in a bad mood? The place is so picture-perfect it’s unreal, like a theme park full of plastic flowers and animatronic peasants.Worse, by touching only briefly on the social and economic claustrophobia that prompts young men to leave these earthly paradises in the first place, the book leaves us with only a partial portrait of McLean’s father, and the sneaking suspicion that somewhere in this little town other quaint villagers want outta there.