The Queen of the Big Time

( 54 )

Overview

Known and loved around the world for her sweeping Big Stone Gap trilogy and the instant New York Times bestseller Lucia, Lucia, Adriana Trigiani returns to the charm and drama of small-town life with Queens of the Big Time. This heartfelt story of the limits and power of love chronicles the remarkable lives of the Castellucas, an Italian-American family, over the course of three generations.

In the late 1800s, the residents of a small village in the Bari region of Italy, on the ...

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The Queen of the Big Time

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Overview

Known and loved around the world for her sweeping Big Stone Gap trilogy and the instant New York Times bestseller Lucia, Lucia, Adriana Trigiani returns to the charm and drama of small-town life with Queens of the Big Time. This heartfelt story of the limits and power of love chronicles the remarkable lives of the Castellucas, an Italian-American family, over the course of three generations.

In the late 1800s, the residents of a small village in the Bari region of Italy, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, made a mass migration to the promised land of America. They settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, and re-created their former lives in their new home–down to the very last detail of who lived next door to whom. The village’s annual celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel–or “the Big Time,” as the occasion is called by the young women who compete to be the pageant’s Queen–is the centerpiece of Roseto’s colorful old-world tradition.

The industrious Castellucas farm the land outside Roseto. Nella, the middle daughter of five, aspires to a genteel life “in town,” far from the rigors of farm life, which have taken a toll on her mother and forced her father to take extra work in the slate quarries to make ends meet. But Nella’s dreams of making her own fortune shift when she meets Renato Lanzara, the son of a prominent Roseto family. Renato is a worldly, handsome, devil-may-care poet who has a way with words that makes him irresistible. Their friendship ignites into a fiery romance that Nella is certain will lead to marriage. But Nella is not alone in her pursuit: every girl in town seems to want Renato. When he disappears without explanation, Nella is left with a shattered heart. Four years later, Renato’s sudden return to Roseto the night before Nella’s wedding to the steadfast Franco Zollerano leaves her and the Castelluca family shaken. For although Renato has chosen a path very different from Nella’s, they are fated to live and work in Roseto, where the past hangs over them like a brewing storm.

An epic of small-town life, etched in glorious detail in the trademark Trigiani style, The Queen of the Big Time is the story of a determined, passionate woman who can never forget her first love.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Queen of the Big Time:


“Moving and poignant ...Trigiani has again defied categorization. She is more than a one-hit wonder, more than a Southern writer, more than a women’s novelist. She is an amazing young talent.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A sweet story of growing up, marrying, and dying within the framework of family, love, and community...[The Queen of the Big Time] will make you smile and reminisce about gentler, more civil times in small-town and rural America.”
The Boston Globe

“Trigiani takes from her own heritage to craft a generous plot-driven novel that’s a breezy page-turner ... ‘Queen’ offers a personal saga of American history and a romance woven together with warmth and good humor.”
Oregonian

“Full-bodied and elegantly written ... Trigiani builds [The Queen of the Big Time] around an old-fashioned love story ...Pure pleasure.”
Washington Post Book World

“Deaths lead to births, dreams deferred yield wondrous new visions [in The Queen of the Big Time] ... intensely detailed characters.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Heartfelt ... Readers who have fallen for Trigiani’s hallmark personages ... in previous books will delight in meeting the new ones É [Paints] a thorough picture of Italian-American family life and the deep pain of lost love.”–Publishers Weekly

Praise for Adriana Trigiani and Lucia, Lucia
“Trigiani's writing is as dazzling as Lucia's dresses.”
USA Today

“Fast-moving, funny, visual, and moving. . . A vibrant, loving, wistful portrait of a lost time and place. Every page is engrossing and begs us to read the next.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Seamlessly superb storytelling . . . Trigiana never loses hold of the hearts of her characters–or of the wisdom that tragedy and redemption are also part of life.”
–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“This heartwarming tale is full of lessons about taking risks in life and love.”
Cosmopolitan

“Compelling...a breezy read.”
Entertainment Weekly

Publishers Weekly
Set in early 20th-century smalltown America, Trigiani's fifth novel (after the Big Stone Gap trilogy and Lucia, Lucia) tells a heartfelt but clumsy story of strong women enduring the rigors of farm life and the trials of romantic and familial relations. At its worst, the novel is a morass of incomplete story lines, underdeveloped characters and inconsistent tenses. Still, readers who've fallen for Trigiani's hallmark personages-Italian immigrants living the American dream in rural Pennsylvania-in previous books will delight in meeting these new ones. Nella Castelluca has brains and ambition; she hopes to someday become a teacher. Alas, when her father is injured at work, she must quit school and stay home to help on the family farm. Her first dream slips away, but working farm life turns out to be not so bad, and Nella eventually falls for the dreamy poet Renato Lanzara. But when he skips town, dream two is crushed, and Nella faces a tough reality: marry another man, and move on. Easier said than done, of course, and Trigiani spends the rest of the book drawing out the saga. Although the writing never rises above B-level, the novel does paint a thorough picture of Italian-American family life and the deep pain of lost love. Agent, William Morris. (July) Forecast: Mailings to book clubs and a 13-city author tour should rally Trigiani loyalists, but they may be frustrated by the sloppiness of the author's latest. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Trapped in a small Pennsylvania town not unlike the small Sicilian village her family left behind, Nella dreams big-and falls for a disarmingly charming poet who just as disarmingly disappears. Set at the turn of the 20th century. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812967807
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/31/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 180,025
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Adriana Trigiani

ADRIANA TRIGIANI is an award-winning playwright, television writer, and documentary filmmaker. The author of the bestselling Big Stone Gap trilogy and the novel Lucia, Lucia, Trigiani has written the screenplay for the movie Big Stone Gap, which she will also direct. She lives in New York City, with her husband and daughter.

Biography

As her squadrons of fans already know, Adriana Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, a coal-mining town in southwest Virginia that became the setting for her first three novels. The Big Stone Gap books feature Southern storytelling with a twist: a heroine of Italian descent, like Trigiani, who attended St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, like Trigiani. But the series isn't autobiographical -- the narrator, Ave Maria Mulligan, is a generation older than Trigiani and, as the first book opens, has settled into small-town spinsterhood as the local pharmacist.

The author, by contrast, has lived most of her adult life in New York City. After graduating from college with a theater degree, she moved to the city and began writing and directing plays (her day jobs included cook, nanny, house cleaner and office temp). In 1988, she was tapped to write for the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, and spent the following decade working in television and film. When she presented her friend and agent Suzanne Gluck with a screenplay about Big Stone Gap, Gluck suggested she turn it into a novel.

The result was an instant bestseller that won praise from fellow writers along with kudos from celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg is a fan). It was followed by Big Cherry Holler and Milk Glass Moon, which chronicle the further adventures of Ave Maria through marriage and motherhood. People magazine called them "Delightfully quirky... chock full of engaging, oddball characters and unexpected plot twists."

Critics sometimes reach for food imagery to describe Trigiani's books, which have been called "mouthwatering as fried chicken and biscuits" (USA Today) and "comforting as a mug of tea on a rainy Sunday" (The New York Times Book Review). Food and cooking play a big role in the lives of Trigiani's heroines and their families: Lucia, Lucia, about a seamstress in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, and The Queen of the Big Time, set in an Italian-American community in Pennsylvania, both feature recipes from Trigiani's grandmothers. She and her sisters have even co-written a cookbook called, appropriately enough, Cooking With My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes, from Bari to Big Stone Gap. It's peppered with anecdotes, photos and family history. What it doesn't have: low-carb recipes. "An Italian girl can only go so long without pasta," Trigiani quipped in an interview on GoTriCities.com.

Her heroines are also ardent readers, so it comes as no surprise that book groups love Adriana Trigiani. And she loves them right back. She's chatted with scores of them on the phone, and her Web site includes photos of women gathered together in living rooms and restaurants across the country, waving Italian flags and copies of Lucia, Lucia.

Trigiani, a disciplined writer whose schedule for writing her first novel included stints from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning, is determined not to disappoint her fans. So far, she's produced a new novel each year since the publication of Big Stone Gap.

"I don't take any of it for granted, not for one second, because I know how hard this is to catch with your public," she said in an interview with The Independent. "I don't look at my public as a group; I look at them like individuals, so if a reader writes and says, 'I don't like this,' or, 'This bit stinks,' I take it to heart."

Good To Know

Some fascinating, funny outtakes from our interview with Trigiani:

"I appeared on the game show Kiddie Kollege on WCYB-TV in Bristol, Virginia, when I was in the third grade. I missed every question. It was humiliating."

"I have held the following jobs: office temp, ticket seller in movie theatre, cook in restaurant, nanny, and phone installer at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. In the writing world, I have been a playwright, television writer/producer, documentary writer/director, and now novelist."

"I love rhinestones, faux jewelry. I bought a pair of pearl studded clip on earrings from a blanket on the street when I first moved to New York for a dollar. They turned out to be a pair designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Now, they are costume, but they are still Schiaps! Always shop in the street -- treasures aplenty."

"Dear readers, I like you. I am so grateful that you read and enjoy my books. I never forget that -- or you -- when I am working. I am also indebted to the booksellers who read the advanced reader's editions and write to me and say, "I'm gonna hand-sell this one." That always makes me jump for joy. I love the people at my publishing house. Smart. Funny, and I like it when they're slightly nervous because that means they care. The people I have met since I started writing books have been amazing on every level -- and why not? You're readers. And for someone to take reading seriously means that you are seeking knowledge. Yes, reading is fun, but it is also an indication of a serious-minded person who values imagination and ideas and, dare I say it, art. I never thought in a million years when I was growing up in Big Stone Gap that I would be writing this to you today. Books have always been sacred to me -- important, critical, fundamental -- and a celebration of language and words. And authors! When I was little, I didn't play Old Maid, I played authors. They had cards with the famous authors on them. Now, granted, they didn't look like movie stars, but I loved what they wrote and had to say. I can boil this all down to one thing: I love to tell stories -- and I love to hear them. I didn't think there was a job in the world where I would get to do both, and now thank God, I've found it."

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Today is the day my teacher, Miss Stoddard, comes to see my parents. She sent them a letter telling them she wanted to come to our house to discuss “the further education of Nella Castelluca.” The letter is official, it was written on a typewriter, signed by my teacher with a fountain pen, dated October 1, 1924, and at the top there’s a gold stamp that says pennsylvania education authority. We never get fancy mail on the farm, only handwritten letters from our relatives in Italy. Mama is saving the envelope from Miss Stoddard for me in a box where she keeps important papers. Sometimes I ask her to show it to me, and every time I read it, I am thrilled all over again.

I hope my parents decide to let me go to school in Roseto. Delabole School only goes to the seventh grade, and I’ve repeated it twice just so I can keep learning. Miss Stoddard is going to tell my parents that I should be given the opportunity to go to high school in town because I have “great potential.”

I am the third daughter of five girls, and I have never been singled out for anything. Finally, it feels like it’s my turn. It’s as though I’m in the middle of a wonderful contest: the music has stopped, the blindfolded girl has pointed to me, and I’ve won the cakewalk. I’ve hardly slept a wink since the letter arrived. I can’t. My whole world will change if my parents let me go to school. My older sisters, Assunta and Elena, stopped going to school after the seventh grade. Neither wanted to continue and there is so much work on the farm, it wasn’t even discussed.

I was helping Mama clean the house to prepare for our company, but she made me go outside because I was making her nervous. She’s nervous? I don’t know if I will make it until two o’clock.

As I lean against the trunk of the old elm at the end of our lane and look up, the late-afternoon sunlight comes through the leaves in little bursts like a star shower, so bright I have to squint so my eyes won’t hurt. Over the hill, our farmhouse, freshly painted pale gray, seems to dance above the ground like a cloud.

Even the water in the creek that runs past my feet seems full of possibility; the old stones that glisten under the water look like silver dollars. How I wish they were! I would scoop them up, fill my pockets, and bring them to Mama, so she could buy whatever she wanted. When I think of her, and I do lots during the day, I remember all the things she doesn’t have and then I try to think up ways to give her what she needs. She deserves pretty dishes and soft rugs and glittering rings. She makes do with enamel plates, painted floorboards, and the locket Papa gave her when they were engaged. Papa smiles when I tell him about my dreams for Mama, and sometimes I think he wishes he could give her nice things too, but we’re just farmers.

If only I could get an education, then I could get a good job and give Mama the world. Papa says I get my brains from her. She is a quick study; in fact, she taught herself to read and write English. Mama spends most nights after dinner teaching Papa to read English, and when he can’t say the words properly, Mama laughs, and then Papa curses in Italian and she laughs harder.

I feel guilty being so happy because usually this is a sad time of year, as the green hills of Delabole turn toffee-colored, which means that soon winter will come and we will have the hog killing. Papa says that if we want to eat, we must help. All the chores around the killing used to bother me; now I don’t cry much. I just stay busy. I help stretch the cloth tarps where the innards lay in the smokehouse before they’re made into sausage, and line the wooden barrels where the scraps go. I have taught my sisters how to separate the innards and rinse them in the cool stream of the springhouse. There’s always plenty of help. Papa invites all his friends from Roseto, and we make a party of it. The dinner at the end of the day is the best part, when the women make tenderloin on the open pit and Papa’s friends tell stories of Italy. It helps to laugh because then you don’t think about the dying part so much.

“Nella?” Mama calls out from the porch.

“Over here!” I holler back.

“Come inside!” She motions me over and goes back into the house.

I carefully place my bookmark in the middle of Jane Eyre, which I am reading for the third time, and pick up the rest of my books and run to the house. It doesn’t look so shabby since the paint job, and the ground around it is much better in autumn, more smooth, after the goat has eaten his fill of the grass. Our farm will never be as beautiful as the houses and gardens in town. Anything that’s pretty on the farm is wild. The fields covered in bright yellow dandelions, low thickets of tiny red beach roses by the road, and stalks of black-eyed Susans by the barn are all accidents.

Roseto is only three miles away, but it might as well be across an ocean. When the trolley isn’t running, we have to walk to get there, mostly through fields and on back roads, but the hike is worth it. The trolley costs a nickel, so it’s expensive for all of us to ride into town. Sometimes Papa takes out the carriage and hitches our horse Moxie to take us in, but I hate that. In town, people have cars, and we look silly with the old carriage.

Papa knows I like to go into town just to look at the houses. Roseto is built on a hill, and the houses are so close together, they are almost connected. When you look down the main street, Garibaldi Avenue, the homes look like a stack of candy boxes with their neat red-brick, white-clapboard, and gray-fieldstone exteriors.

Each home has a small front yard, smooth green squares of grass trimmed by low hedges. There are no bumps and no shards of shale sticking up anywhere. Orange, yellow, and purple bachelor buttons grow along the walkways in rows. On the farm, the land has pits and holes and the grass grows in tufts. Every detail in Roseto’s landscape seems enchanted, from the fig trees with their spindly branches to the open wood arbors covered with white blossoms in the spring, which become fragrant grapes by summer.

Even the story of how Roseto became a town is like a fairy tale. We make Papa tell the story because he remembers when the town was just a camp with a group of Italian men who came over to find work in the quarries. The men were rejected in New York and New Jersey because they were Pugliese and had funny accents that Italians in those places could not understand. One of Papa’s friends saw an ad in a newspaper looking for quarry workers in Pennsylvania, so they pooled what little money they had and took the train to Bangor, about ninety miles from New York City, to apply for work. At first, there was resistance to hiring the Italians, but when the quarry owners saw how hard the immigrants worked, they made it clear that more jobs were available. This is how our people came to live here. As the first group became established, they sent for more men, and those men brought their families. The Italians settled in an area outside Bangor called Howell Town, and eventually, another piece of land close by was designated for the Italians. They named it Roseto, after the town they came from. In Italian, it means “hillside covered with roses.” Papa tells us that when the families built their homes here, they positioned them exactly as they had been in Italy. So if you were my neighbor in Roseto Valfortore, you became my neighbor in the new Roseto.

Papa’s family were farmers, so the first thing he did when he saved enough money working in the quarry was to lease land outside Roseto and build his farm. The cheapest land was in Delabole, close enough to town and yet too far for me. Papa still works in the quarry for extra money sometimes, but mainly his living comes from the three cows, ten chickens, and twelve hogs we have on the farm.

“Mama made everything look nice,” Elena tells me as she sweeps the porch. She is sixteen, only two years older than me, but she has always seemed more mature. Elena is Mama’s helper; she takes care of our two younger sisters and helps with the household chores. She is thin and pretty, with pale skin and dark brown eyes. Her black hair falls in waves, but there is always something sad about her, so I spend a lot of time trying to cheer her up.

“Thanks for sweeping,” I tell her.

“I want everything to look perfect for Miss Stoddard too.” She smiles.

There is no sweeter perfume on the farm than strong coffee brewing on the stove and Mama’s buttery sponge cake, fresh out of the oven. Mama has the place sparkling. The kitchen floor is mopped, every pot is on its proper hook, and the table is covered in a pressed blue-and-white-checked tablecloth. In the front room, she has draped the settee in crisp white muslin and placed a bunch of lavender tied with a ribbon in the kindling box by the fireplace. I hope Miss Stoddard doesn’t notice that we don’t have much furniture.

“How do I look?” Mama asks, turning slowly in her Sunday dress, a simple navy blue wool crepe drop-waist with black buttons. Mama’s hair is dark brown; she wears it in a long braid twisted into a knot at the nape of her neck. She has high cheekbones and deep-set brown eyes; her skin is tawny brown from working in the field with Papa.

“Beautiful.”

Mama laughs loudly. “Oh Nella, you always lie to make me feel good. But that’s all right, you have a good heart.” Mama pulls a long wooden spoon from the brown crock on the windowsill. She doesn’t have to ask; I fetch the jar of raspberry jam we put up last summer from the pantry. Mama takes a long serrated knife, places her hand on top of the cool cake, and without a glitch slices the sponge cake in two, lengthwise. No matter how many times I try to slice a cake in two, the knife always gets stuck. Mama separates the halves, placing the layers side by side on her cutting board. She spoons the jam onto one side, spreads it evenly, and then flips the top layer back on, perfectly centered over the layer of jam. Finally, she reaches into the sugar canister, pulls out the sift, and dusts the top with powdered sugar.

Zia Irma’s Italian Sponge Cake

1 cup cake flour

6 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon almond flavoring

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Sift the cake flour. Beat the egg yolks until lemon-colored. Gradually add the sugar. Blend the flour and almond flavoring in the water and add to the egg yolk mixture at low speed. Add the salt and cream of tartar. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they are frothy and stand in peaks. Fold the egg yolk mixture into the whites just until blended. Pour the batter into a 10-inch ungreased tube pan. Bake for one hour or until cake springs back when lightly touched in center. Let sit in inverted position until cool.

“Now. Is this good enough for your teacher?” Mama asks as she lifts the cake onto her best platter.

“It looks better than the cakes in the bakery window.” I’m sure Mama knows I’m lying again. As nice as Mama’s cake is, I wish that we were serving pastries from Marcella’s, the bakery in town. There’s a pink canopy over the storefront and bells that chime when you push the front door open. Inside they have small white café tables with matching wrought-iron chairs with swirly backs. When Papa goes there and buys cream puffs (always on our birthdays, it’s a Castelluca tradition), the baker puts them on frilly doilies inside a white cardboard box tied with string. Even the box top is elegant. There’s a picture of a woman in a wide-brimmed hat winking and holding a flag that says marcella’s. No matter how much powdered sugar Mama sprinkles on this cake to fancy it up, it is still plain old sponge cake made in our plain old oven.

“Is the teacher here yet?” Papa hollers as he comes into the house, the screen door banging behind him.

“No, Papa,” I tell him, relieved that she has not arrived to hear him shouting like a farmer. Papa comes into the kitchen, grabs Mama from behind, and kisses her. He is six feet tall; his black hair is streaked with white at the temples. He has a wide black mustache, which is always neatly trimmed. Papa’s olive skin is deep brown from working in the sun most every day of his life. His broad shoulders are twice as wide as Mama’s; she is not a small woman, but looks petite next to him.

“I don’t have time for fooling around,” Mama says to Papa, removing his hands from her waist. I am secretly proud that Mama is barking orders, because this is my important day, and she knows that we need to make a good impression. Roma and Dianna run into the kitchen. Elena grabs them to wash their hands at the sink.

“I helped Papa feed the horse,” Roma says. She is eight years old, sweet and round, much like one of the rolls in the bakery window.

“Good girl,” Mama says to her. “And Dianna? What did you do?”

“I watched.” She shrugs. Dianna is small and quick, but never uses her dexterity for chores. Her mind is always off somewhere else. She is the prettiest, with her long chestnut brown hair streaked with gold, and her blue eyes. Because Dianna and Roma are only a year apart, and the youngest, they are like twins, and we treat them as such.

“Everything is just perfect.” I give my mother a quick hug.

“All this fuss. It’s just Miss Stoddard coming over.” Assunta, the eldest, is a long, pale noodle of a girl with jet-black hair and brown eyes that tilt down at the corners. She has a permanent crease between her eyes because she is forever thinking up ways to be mean.

“I like Miss Stoddard,” Elena says quietly.

“She’s nobody special,” Assunta replies. Elena looks at me and moves over to the window, out of Assunta’s way. Elena is very much in the shadow of the eldest daughter; then again, we all are. Assunta just turned nineteen, and is engaged to a young man from Mama’s hometown in Italy. The marriage was arranged years ago; Assunta and the boy have written to each other since they were kids. We are all anxious to meet him, having seen his picture. He is very handsome and seems tall, though you really can’t tell how tall someone is from a photograph. Elena and I think the arrangement is a good idea because there is no way anyone around here would want to marry her. Assunta doesn’t get along with most people, and the truth is, most boys are scared of her. “Teachers are the same wherever you go. They teach,” Assunta grunts.

“Miss Stoddard is the best teacher I ever had,” I tell her.

“She’s the only teacher you ever had, dummy.”

She’s right, of course. I have only ever gone to Delabole School. For most of the last year, I’ve helped Miss Stoddard teach the little ones how to read, and when school is dismissed, she works with me beyond the seventh-grade curriculum. I have read Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë, and loved them all. But now Miss Stoddard believes I need more of a challenge, and she wants me to go to a school where I will learn with others my age.

Assunta leans on the table and eyes the cake. Mama turns to the sink. Papa has gone into the pantry, so Assunta seizes the moment and extends her long, pointy finger at the cake to poke at it.

“Don’t!” I push the platter away from her.

Assunta’s black eyes narrow. “Do you think she’ll be impressed with sponge cake? You’re ridiculous.” I don’t know if it’s the way she is looking at me, or the thought that she would deliberately ruin a cake for my teacher, or fourteen years of antagonism welling up inside of me, but I slap her. At first, Assunta is surprised, but then delighted to defend herself. She hits me back, then digs her fingernails into my arm.

Mama pulls me away from her. Assunta always ruins everything for me, but this is one day that cannot be derailed by my sister. “What’s the matter with you?” Mama holds on to me.

I want to tell my mother that I’ve never wanted anything so much as the very thing Miss Stoddard is coming to talk to them about, but I’ve made a habit of never saying what I really want, for fear that Assunta will find some way to make sure I don’t get it. Mama never understands, she can’t see what kind of a girl my sister really is, and demands that we treat each other with respect. But how can I respect someone who is cruel? My parents say they love each of us equally, but is that even possible? Aren’t some people more lovable than others? And why do I have to be lumped in with a sister who has no more regard for me than the pigs she kicks out of the way when she goes to feed them in the pen? Assunta is full of resentment. No matter what her portion might be, it is never enough. There is no pleasing her, but I am the only one around here who realizes this.

Elena, who hates fighting, hangs her head and begins to cry. Dianna and Roma look at each other and run outside.

“I should tell your teacher to go straight home when she gets here, that’s what I should do,” Papa says. Assunta stands behind him, smooths her hair, and smirks. She tells Papa I threw the first punch, so it is I who must be punished.

“Please, please, Papa, don’t send Miss Stoddard away,” I beg. I am sorry that I fell for Assunta’s jab, and that the whole of my future could be ruined by my impulsive nature. “I am sorry, Assunta.”

“It’s about time you learned how to behave. You’re an animal.” Assunta looks at Mama and then Papa. “You let her get away with everything. You’ll see how she ends up.” Assunta storms upstairs. I close my eyes and count the days until Alessandro Pagano comes from Italy to marry her and take her out of this house.

“Why do you always lose your temper?” Papa asks quietly.

“She was going to ruin the cake.”

“Assunta is not a girl anymore. She’s about to be married. You musn’t hit her. Or anyone,” Papa says firmly. I wish I could tell him how many times she slaps me with her hairbrush when he isn’t looking.

Mama takes the cake and goes to the front room.

“I’m sorry,” I call after her quietly.

“You’re bleeding,” Elena says, taking the moppeen from the sink. “It’s next to your eye.” She dabs the scratch with the cool rag and I feel the sting.

“Papa, you musn’t let her meet Mr. Pagano before the wedding day. He’ll turn right around and go back to Italy.”

Papa tries not to laugh. “Nella. That’s enough.”

“He has to marry her. He has to,” I say under my breath.

“They will marry,” Papa promises. “Your mother saw to it years ago.”

Papa must know that the deal could be broken and we’d be stuck with Assunta forever. Bad luck is wily: it lands on you when you least expect it.

Papa goes out back to wash up. I put the jar of jam back in the pantry. Elena has already washed the spoon and put it away; now she straightens the tablecloth. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” she says.

“I’m going to wait on the porch for Miss Stoddard,” I tell Mama as I push through the screen door. Once I’m outside, I sit on the steps and gather my skirts tightly around my knees and smooth the burgundy corduroy down to my ankles. The scratch over my eye begins to pulse, so I take my thumb and apply pressure, something Papa taught me to do when I accidently cut myself.

I look down to the road that turns onto the farm and imagine Assunta in her wedding gown, climbing into the front seat of Alessandro Pagano’s car (I hope he has one!). He revs the engine, and as the car lurches and we wave, her new husband will honk the horn and we will stand here until they disappear onto Delabole Road, fading away to a pinpoint in the distance until they are gone forever. That, I am certain, will be the happiest moment of my life. If the angels are really on my side that day, Alessandro will decide he hates America and will throw my sister on a boat and take her back to Italy.

“Nella! Miss Stoddard is coming!” Dianna skips out from behind the barn. Roma, as always, follows a few steps behind. I look down the lane, anchored at the end by the old elm, and see my teacher walking from the trolley stop. Miss Stoddard is a great beauty; she has red hair and hazel eyes. She always wears a white blouse and a long wool skirt. Her black shoes have small silver buckles, which are buffed shiny like mirrors. She has the fine bone structure of the porcelain doll Mama saved from her childhood in Italy. We never play with the delicate doll; she sits on the shelf staring at us with her perfect ceramic gaze. But there’s nothing fragile about Miss Stoddard. She can run and jump and whoop and holler like a boy. She taught me how to play jacks, red rover, and checkers during recess. Most important, she taught me how to read. For this, I will always be in her debt. She has known me since I was five, so really, I have known her almost as long as my own parents. Roma and Dianna have run down the lane to walk her to our porch; Miss Stoddard walks between them, holding their hands as they walk to the farmhouse.

“Hi, Nella.” Miss Stoddard’s smile turns to a look of concern. “What did you do to your eye?”

“I hit the gate on the chicken coop.” I shrug. “Clumsy. You know me.”

The screen door creaks open.

“Miss Stoddard, please come in,” Mama says, extending her hand. I’m glad to see Miss Stoddard still has her gloves on; she won’t notice how rough Mama’s hands are. “Please, sit down.” Mama tells Elena to fetch Papa. Miss Stoddard sits on the settee. “This is lovely.” She points to the sponge cake on the wooden tray. Thank God Mama thought to put a linen napkin over the old wood.

“Thank you.” Mama smiles, pouring a cup of coffee for Miss Stoddard in the dainty cup with the roses. We have four bone china cups and saucers, but not all have flowers on them. Mama gives a starched lace napkin to her with the cup of coffee.

“Don’t get up,” Papa says in a booming voice as he enters the room. Papa has changed out of his old work shirt into a navy blue cotton shirt. It’s not a dress shirt, but at least it’s pressed. He did not bother to change his pants with the suspenders, but that’s all right. We aren’t going to a dance, after all, and Miss Stoddard knows he’s a farmer. I motion to Dianna and Roma to go; when they don’t get the hint, Elena herds them out.

Mama sits primly on the settee. Papa pulls the old rocker from next to the fireplace. I pour coffee for my parents.

Miss Stoddard takes a bite of cake and compliments Mama. Then she sips her coffee graciously and places the cup back on the saucer. “As I wrote you in the letter,” she begins, “I believe that Nella is an exceptional student.”

“Exceptional?” Papa pronounces the word slowly.

“She’s far ahead of any student her age whom I’ve taught before. I have her reading books that advanced students would read.”

“I just finished Moby-Dick,” I announce proudly, “and I’m reading Jane Eyre again.”

Miss Stoddard continues. “She’s now repeated the seventh grade twice, and I can’t keep her any longer. I think it would be a shame to end Nella’s education.” Miss Stoddard looks at me and smiles. “She’s capable of so much more. I wrote to the Columbus School in Roseto, and they said that they would take her. Columbus School goes to the twelfth grade.”

“She would have to go into town?”

“Yes, Papa, it’s in town.” The thought of it is so exciting to me I can’t stay quiet. How I would love to ride the trolley every morning, and stop every afternoon after school for a macaroon at Marcella’s!

“The school is right off Main Street, a half a block from the trolley station,” Miss Stoddard explains.

“We know where it is.” Papa smiles. “But Nella cannot ride the trolley alone.”

“I could go with her, Papa,” Elena says from the doorway. She looks at me, knowing how much it would mean to me.

“We cannot afford the trolley twice a day, and two of you, well, that is out of the question.”

“I could walk! It’s only three miles!”

Papa looks a little scandalized, but once again, Elena comes to my rescue. “I’ll walk with her, Papa.” How kind of my sister. She was average in school and couldn’t wait to be done with the seventh grade. And now she’s offering to walk an hour each way for me.

“Thank you, Elena,” I tell her sincerely.

“Girls, let me speak with Miss Stoddard alone.”

The look on Papa’s face tells me that I should not argue the point. Mama has not said a word, but she wouldn’t. Papa speaks on behalf of our family.

“Papa?” Assunta, who must have been eavesdropping from the stairs, comes into the room. “I’ll walk her into town.” Elena and I look at each other. Assunta has never done a thing for me, why would she want to walk me into town?

“Thank you,” Papa says to Assunta and then looks at me as if to say, See, your sister really does care about you. But I am certain there must be some underlying reason for Assunta to show this kind of generosity toward me. There must be something in it for her!

“I am starting a new job in town next month,” Assunta explains to Miss Stoddard. Elena and I look at each other again. This is the first we have heard of a job. “I am going to work at the Roseto Manufacturing Company. I have to be at work by seven o’clock in the morning.”

Elena nudges me. Assunta has been keeping secrets. We had no idea she was going to work in Roseto’s blouse mill.

“School begins at eight,” Miss Stoddard says.

“I’ll wait outside for them to open the school. I don’t mind!” Miss Stoddard smiles at me. “Really, I’ll stand in the snow. I don’t care!”

“Nella, let me speak to your teacher alone.” Papa’s tone tells me he means it this time, so I follow Elena up the stairs and into our room.

“Can you believe it? I’m going to school!” I straighten the coverlet on my bed so the lace on the hem just grazes the floorboards.

“You deserve it. You work so hard.”

“So do you!”

“Yes, but I’m not smart.” Elena says this without a trace of self-pity. “But you, you could be a teacher someday.”

“That’s what I want. I want to be just like Miss Stoddard. I want to teach little ones how to read. Every day we’ll have story hour. I’ll read Aesop’s Fables and Tales from Shakespeare aloud, just like she does. And on special days, like birthdays, I’ll make tea cakes and lemonade and have extra recess.”

Assunta pushes the door open.

“When did you decide to work at the mill?” Elena asks her.

“When I realized how small my dowry would be. Papa’s money is all tied up in cows. I don’t want Alessandro thinking he got stuck with a poor farm girl.” Assunta goes to the window and looks out over Delabole farm. “But he is getting stuck with a poor farm girl, so I have to do my part.”

I never thought about a dowry, but it makes sense. Of course we have to pay someone to take Assunta off of our hands. Who would take her for free?

“I’m sure Alessandro isn’t expecting—” Elena begins.

Assunta interrupts her. “How do you know what he expects?”

The funny thing is, I’ve read all of Alessandro’s letters to Assunta (she keeps them hidden in a tin box in the closet), and I don’t remember a single word about any expectations of a dowry. But now is not the time to point that out. If she knew I read her private mail, she’d do worse than scratch me.

“Alessandro is a lucky man.” Elena and Assunta look surprised. “You’re very kind.” I smile at Assunta. “You didn’t have to offer to walk me to school, but you did and I appreciate it.”

“You will have to work for the privilege.” Assunta crosses her arms over her chest like a general and looks down on me.

“The privilege?”

“I’m putting you to work for me. You will make all the linens for my hope chest. And when I pick my house in town, you will make all the draperies. And for the first year of my married life, or until I decide otherwise, you will be my maid. You will cook, do our laundry, and clean my house. Do you understand?”

So there it is: the catch. Assunta wants a maid. I’d like to tell her that I will never clean her house, or sew for her, or do anything she asks of me, because from as far back as I can remember, I have hated her. I pray every night that God will stop this hate, but the more I pray, the worse I feel. I cannot be cured. But I want to be a teacher, and no matter what I have to do to reach that goal, I will do it. I don’t want to stay on the farm my whole life. I want to visit the places I read about in books, and find them on maps that I have studied. I can’t do any of this without Assunta’s help. “It’s a deal,” I tell her. Assunta smirks and goes back downstairs.

“She should walk you to school just because she’s your sister. How dare she make you pay for that?” Elena is angry, but she knows as well as I do that in this house, Assunta is the queen, and we serve her. If I have to scrub a thousand floors to go to Columbus School, the exchange will be worth it.

Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. Describe the relationships within the Castelluca family. Do you think families today possess similar values? How does Nella relate to her sisters, in particular Assunta and Elena?

2. When Nella first meets Renato Lanzara, she thinks, “This must be what love at first sight feels like.” Do you think Nella’s first encounter with Renato Lanzara is really love at first sight? What is it about him that is so attractive to her? Do her feelings signify more than simply an adolescent crush?

3. By setting up an arranged marriage between Assunta and Alessandro, Nella’s parents are employing a tradition from their past in Italy. Does this practice gel with their new existence in America? How does Nella’s generation view this arranged marriage? How does Alessandro’s arrival change the dynamics within the Castelluca family? How does Allesandro regard his sisters-in-law?

4. Upon meeting at the Columbus School, Nella and Chettie quickly become friends. How does their relationship compare to those that Nella has with her sisters? What qualities does Chettie have that differ from the Castelluca girls’? How does the quarry accident affect their friendship?

5. In the 1920s, it was rare for a woman to receive admiration and respect in the workplace, especially from a man. What is it about Nella that impresses Mr. Jenkins?

6. How are issues of class and race explored in The Queen of the Big Time? How do you think the Castellucas’ lives would differ if they didn’t live in their transplanted Italian enclave?

7. When tragedy hits, how do the Castellucas deal with change and adjust their roles within thefamily? How do the ways they rely on one another change?

8. Why isn’t Nella interested in Franco at first? What are the qualities she’s looking for in a man? How do Franco and Renato differ, and why do you think she ends up choosing Franco over someone like Renato?

9. Religion plays a large role in the townspeople of Bari. How big a part does it play in Nella’s life? When does she turn toward her religious values? Did your view of clergy members change after Nella and Renato’s encounter in Italy?

10. In many of her novels, Trigiani has explored the complicated dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. How would you characterize the relationship between Nella and her mother, compared to that of Nella and Celeste? How does Nella and Celeste’s relationship change as Celeste grows older?

11. Do you think it is possible for one to find true love more than once in a lifetime? How is Nella’s love for Renato different from her love for Franco? Are both loves “true”?

12. In what ways can Nella be considered a “Queen of the Big Time”?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. Describe the relationships within the Castelluca family. Do you think families today possess similar values? How does Nella relate to her sisters, in particular Assunta and Elena?

2. When Nella first meets Renato Lanzara, she thinks, “This must be what love at first sight feels like.” Do you think Nella’s first encounter with Renato Lanzara is really love at first sight? What is it about him that is so attractive to her? Do her feelings signify more than simply an adolescent crush?

3. By setting up an arranged marriage between Assunta and Alessandro, Nella’s parents are employing a tradition from their past in Italy. Does this practice gel with their new existence in America? How does Nella’s generation view this arranged marriage? How does Alessandro’s arrival change the dynamics within the Castelluca family? How does Allesandro regard his sisters-in-law?

4. Upon meeting at the Columbus School, Nella and Chettie quickly become friends. How does their relationship compare to those that Nella has with her sisters? What qualities does Chettie have that differ from the Castelluca girls’? How does the quarry accident affect their friendship?

5. In the 1920s, it was rare for a woman to receive admiration and respect in the workplace, especially from a man. What is it about Nella that impresses Mr. Jenkins?

6. How are issues of class and race explored in The Queen of the Big Time? How do you think the Castellucas’ lives would differ if they didn’t live in their transplanted Italian enclave?

7. When tragedy hits, how do the Castellucas deal with change and adjust their roles within the family? How do the ways they rely on one another change?

8. Why isn’t Nella interested in Franco at first? What are the qualities she’s looking for in a man? How do Franco and Renato differ, and why do you think she ends up choosing Franco over someone like Renato?

9. Religion plays a large role in the townspeople of Bari. How big a part does it play in Nella’s life? When does she turn toward her religious values? Did your view of clergy members change after Nella and Renato’s encounter in Italy?

10. In many of her novels, Trigiani has explored the complicated dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. How would you characterize the relationship between Nella and her mother, compared to that of Nella and Celeste? How does Nella and Celeste’s relationship change as Celeste grows older?

11. Do you think it is possible for one to find true love more than once in a lifetime? How is Nella’s love for Renato different from her love for Franco? Are both loves “true”?

12. In what ways can Nella be considered a “Queen of the Big Time”?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 54 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(26)

4 Star

(21)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(2)

1 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 54 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2011

    5 stars is not enough!

    This book captured my heart .... especially if your Italian you will fall in love! The characters come to life in this story about love and family!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2011

    great read

    a Lovely story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 14, 2009

    Love, loss, and life changes

    Trigiani takes us through many generations in this lovely though sometimes maudlin story. There are myriad happenings in this Italian-American family, and there's lots of heart. I could easily relate to the character of Nella Castelluca -- her secret fears, her dreams, and her love of studying and burning desire to become a teacher. I felt her emotions and I shed a tear for her.

    The author did a wonderful job of developing all the characters. Plus, I enjoyed the depiction of a Pennsylvania small town at its best, and worst. The writing style was fluid and gentle. And even though some of the plot was a little predictable, that did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of the story.

    I plan to read Trigiani's latest book Very Valentine soon.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2009

    True to Trigiani style! Very entertaining and comfortable to curl up with!

    I recently read this book while on a trip and it was wonderful to be able to read just a few pages at a time and when I was interrupted, I could put it away and get right back into the story each time. I love reading Adriana Trigiani.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Another hit from Adriana Trigiani

    I am hooked on this Authors writing style..very easy to get swept away in her stories. Very likable characters, interesting plots, etc...
    I intend to read all her books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2008

    Loved it!

    This is a great book, it's about Nella(the main Character) wanting to forget about some guy but she never forgets about him for one because she doesn't want to let go, and secondly because it was her first love. The story is really nice, but what i don't like is that she gives her whole heart to someone who doesn't deserve it and only threw it in her face, while that hurt her she still loved him. It's about letting go, even when you love the person so much.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2008

    A reviewer

    I went to grade school in Roseto, and was very excited to read a novel set in a small town I recognized. Even though much of the story takes place long before my time, it was really fun to read the names of people and streets I remembered. What I wasn't expecting was that this book would be such an engaging story. The author's style is light and easy to read, kind of romanc-ey, but the sex scenes were not drawn out and the characters are totally believeable. She presents the best and worst of Roseto as well as the highs and lows of the human soul. I look forward to reading her other works.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2014

    Favorite

    I have read all of her bookss, but this is the only book I've ever read three times. I absolutely love it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 5, 2014

    I thought at first this was a Young Adult book, and not a very g

    I thought at first this was a Young Adult book, and not a very good one at that...but..I kept reading, and FELL into the book, completely. I never wanted it to end. I loved it. I have loved all of her books

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 24, 2014

    It was fascinating to drop back into time, early 1920's, and int

    It was fascinating to drop back into time, early 1920's, and into the lives of recent Italian immigrants. Delightful story and great history.
    I enjoy dropping in the worlds of Adriana Trigiani.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013

    Recommend...great summer read!

    The author keeps you wanting to know what happens next. This book is especially great for close knit family members. We have read several of her books and enjoyed all of them.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2013

    Wonderful book

    Omg I was not able to stop reading! About to purchase her next book Rococo

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2012

    Loved

    I fell in love with the characters in this book. I felt their pain, sorrow, hardships, happiness and joy. Overall one of my all time favorite books.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2012

    Great!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2008

    A Good Book

    This is a great book, but is a bit limited in terms of depth when compared to the Big Stone Gap series. She tells a great story, but it was a bit predictable. I usually have a hard time guessing what her characters will do next, but this one lent itself to guessing. Liked it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2007

    round two

    i opened this book three days ago. i just began re-reading it. Amazing.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2006

    such a joyful read

    I have never taken the time to write a book review on line before but had to after this joyful read. I have loved all of the authors books and this was no exception. The full circle of this story was a joy to experience. I do wish it had been longer, with more details of the later years.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2005

    A good, quick book to read

    I loved this story but was disappointed that they book itself wasnt longer. I felt like it skipped over a large portion of Nella's life when the story could have been further developed. That said, reading this book was like a walk down memory lane for me, I grew up very near to the town's mentioned in this book. My grandmother also worked in a garment factory and it brought back memories of her stories. I almost felt like this story could have been true since so much of the details were accurate. I cant wait to share this book with my mother who also grew up in the area. This book is an easy, good read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2005

    Great read!

    I could not put this book down it just drew me in. I've read and own all of the author's books and recommend them to you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2005

    This is a MUST READ! Well Done

    I was standing in line at the airport and saw this book in paperback. I was so excited because I read Lucia, Lucia and fell in love with the characters. I laughed, I cried and I closed my eyes being able to picture this family and the life they led. My grandfather grew up in Foggia, Italy so it made it seem as if these could have been his neighbors. Thank you for your heartfelt love you put into writing this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 54 Customer Reviews

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