Full of Grace

Having grown up in an Italian family, I was naturally skeptical when I picked up Dorothia Benton Frank’s /Full of Grace/; “Great,” I thought. “This is just what we need–another popular portrayal of Italian Americans in a culture who still thinks Italians are all cut from the same cloth as The Godfather.” At a glance, the Russos are just that: you’ve got big Al, the man who has his fingers in every financial pie imaginable, hands out pricy gifts and wads of cash like candy, and opens a second business just so he can have *something* to shove his no-good son into when he can’t make a living doing anything else.

Then there’s Frank: the respectable, first-born son, professor at a university, married an Italian Catholic, has three beautiful children–check, check, check. Perfecto!

Nickie: no-good son who took eight years to finish his AA in communications and is marrying a Kindergarten teacher with blond bimbo tattooed on her forehead.

Now, there’s Grace: only daughter, living in a house her father paid for, with her (wait for it) “Irish baby butcher” agnostic boyfriend–baby butcher because he’s a doctor who does research on stem cells. Shock! Horror!

The worst part is–and I hate to admit it–that this picture is more accurate than not, give or take a few details; it’s pretty much a fill-in-the-blank Italian family in contemporary America.

In spite of this cookie-cutter family, Dorothia Benton Frank surprised me most pleasantly. Though not Italian herself, she obviously did her research: from the obnoxious Christmas lights and life-size nativity scene on the front lawn (minus the baby Jesus until Christmas morning…midnight to be precise), to the Thanksgiving dinner flavored with the taste of Italy–antipasto and ravioli on Thanksgiving? Besides the traditional turkey and trimmings? I swear to you on my grandmother’s grave, it is all true!

In short, Grace is having her own crisis of faith–symptomatic of her time spent with the live-in baby butcher, naturally–until Michael develops a brain tumor of the most fatal kind–he has a year to live…if he’s lucky. Through this story, Frank introduces us to a cast of characters who call into question everything you think you know (or don’t) about the Catholic church and faith in general; we learn that faith isn’t as black-and-white as good Catholic, bad catholic; that the individual journey of faith is far more nuanced and scenic than the straight and narrow blueprint given to us by the Vatican; that the line between God and science is so blurred as to be sometimes nonexistent; that just because you don’t believe in miracles, it doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

This book is a must-read for anyone whose family tradition is steeped in European culture–not just Italian, and not just Catholic. Some of it might  not be as relatable for non-Catholics or non-Christians, but the story is powerful all the same.

1 Comment »

  1. Kimberly & guide dog Abby said

    Hmmm, sounds kind of interesting. We have Italians in my extended family, and they bring lasagna to Thanksgiving & Christmas. I prefer the traditional American foods for holiday meals, but I love them.

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