Melania G. Mazzucco’s novel, Vita, brings the reader a saga, a journey of hopes, dreams, illusions and disillusionment that comprises the historic emigration of the Italians. Historical fact is infused with fiction in this incredible story of Vita (aged nine) and Diamante (aged 12), two cousins who leave behind their poor families in Italy, and who immigrate to New York City in 1903. They make it through customs at Ellis Island and must find their way to where Vita’s father lives, in a boardinghouse located in the Italian Quarter.
Mazzucco’s descriptive words leave nothing to the imagination, as she blends the horrid and squallid conditions the poor Italian immigrant had to deal with. Survival was difficult, and no prose is minced in telling the story of Vita and Diamante’s assimilation into the America of New York City. From decrepit living quarters, to hard labor; from lack of food and essentials, to disease and death; from theft and murder to chaos, we see it all through their eyes We also see it through the eyes of the other many characters in the story, characters that are relevant. Throughout all of their struggles, Vita and Diamante’s love for each other remains constant.
Diamante is forced into contractual hard labor as a water boy for a railroad company, causing him to move west. His dreams shatter when he realizes he has been duped by the railroad company, and he makes his way back to New York City, to find Vita, the force who has kept him alive.
The story weaves its web from Italy to New York City, and back again to Italy, as Vita’s son searches for his mother’s past, during WWII, when he served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Vita, herself, also makes a trip to Italy, and returns to New York City.
From dreams to reality, motivation to complacency, the harshness of life, and the struggles, each manages to survive in their own way, and each realizes that the America they dreamed of, and the America that held their hopes when they first emigrated from Italy, is not the America they know.
The Italian immigrant story is a complex one, and one that is often unnoticed in the scheme of things. But, it is a story that plays a major stepping stone in the human building blocks of New York City. Melania G. Mazzucco relates the history with her incredible insight into the plight of the Italian immigrant (Diamante and Vita were ancestors of hers), and brings us, not only a story filled with harsh realities, but a story of lives consumed by love. One must read Vita, the novel, slowly in order to fully realize and comprehend the amazing content and substance of the brilliant gift she has given us.