Wednesday, June 23, 2010

79. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers by Jennifer Mascia

I read about Never Tell Our Business to Strangers in People magazine, and was immediately intrigued. Reading The Godfather whetted my appetite for more mafia-related books, and I really liked the title and the cover. It took forever to get through the waiting list at the library, so I was pretty happy when I finally got it.

When Jennifer Mascia is five years old, the FBI comes for her father. At that moment Jenny realizes that her family isn't exactly normal. What follows are months of confusion marked by visits with her father through thick glass, talking to him over a telephone attached to the wall. She and her mother crisscross the country, from California to New York to Miami and back again. When her father finally returns home, months later, his absence is never explained -- and Jenny is told that the family has a new last name. It's only much later that Jenny discovers that theirs was life spent on the lam, trying to outrun the law. 

Thus begins the story of Jennifer Mascia's bizarre but strangely magical childhood. An only child, she revels in her parents' intense love for her -- and rides the highs and lows of their equally passionate arguments. They are a tight-knit band, never allowing many outsiders in. And then there are the oddities that Jenny notices only as she gets older: the fact that her father had two names before he went away -- in public he was Frank, but at home her mother called him Johnny; the neat, hidden hole in the carpet where her parents keep all their cash. The family sees wild swings in wealth -- one year they're shopping for Chanel and Louis Vuitton at posh shopping centers in Los Angeles, the next they're living in one room and subsisting on food stamps.

What have her parents done? What was the reason for her father's incarceration so many years ago? When Jenny, at twenty-two, uncovers her father's criminal record during an Internet search, still more questions are raised. By then he is dying of cancer, so she presses her mother for answers, eliciting the first in a series of reluctant admissions about her father's criminal past. Before her mother dies, four years later, Jenny is made privy to one final, riveting confession, which sets her on a search for the truth her mother fought to conceal for so many years. As Jenny unravels her family's dark secrets, she must confront the grisly legacy she has inherited and the hard truth that her parents are not -- and never have been -- what they claimed to be.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. I typed it up, and it took forever.

It took awhile to settle into Mascia's writing style; it seemed over-written or over-dramatic or just over-something. The book eventually drew me in, but took its sweet time in doing so. I ultimately didn't connect to it in the way that I expected, so the experience was disappointing. 

First off, we're supposed to know that her parents loved intensely and fought intensely. All I could feel was the fighting, I didn't get as strong a sense of the love. That just didn't come across as successfully. 
Secondly, this isn't my world and I don't want it to be, so it was hard to settle into the book for that reason as well. My dad never kicked me in the shins for talking back to my mom, you know? There was no "busting" of credit cards in our house (to my knowledge). So much of Mascia's childhood is just unpleasant to read about, rather than interesting. 

And finally, so much of the book is about the parents dying of cancer -- the two separate prolonged illnesses and deaths feature prominently and it is so sad. I was expecting to read more about her digging to find out about their past, and that's really a very small part of the book. 

As I read, I kept wondering where the expression "on the lam" comes from anyway. What does it MEAN? As usual, Wikipedia was the fastest answer (even though -- I know, I know -- it's not always the most reputable).

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