It’s comforting to believe that doing the “right’’ things - working hard, finding the perfect home in a nice town, sending your kids to the best schools - can ensure that your life will turn out the way you want.
In his new novel, “Norumbega Park,’’ Anthony Giardina, who lives in Northampton, traces the 40-year history of a family who believed that such things could insulate them from the vicissitudes of life and must wrestle with disappointment and regret when reality doesn’t meet expectations. It’s an arc mirrored by the novel itself, which ultimately fails to capitalize on its promising start.
A wrong turn sets the story in motion. It’s November 1969, and Richie Palumbo is driving his family back from Lexington, where they bought a farm-raised Thanksgiving turkey and reveled in the beauty of Yankee New England. He and his wife, Stella, are first-generation Italian-Americans, bristling against the claustrophobic bounds of their ethnic neighborhood in Waltham and yearning to enjoy the fruits of their newfound middle-class status.
Lost in the leafy suburbs west of Boston, they stumble upon Norumbega, a fictionalized approximation of tony towns like Wellesley or Newton. It’s a storybook setting, with a quaint village green and an imposing Revolutionary War monument. Most importantly, Richie discovers a beautiful home, full of history and character, that he believes will grant him entrance into the idyllic American life he longs for. He decides then and there that Norumbega will be the foundation upon which a new, more substantial start for his family will be built. “They would come here,’’ thought Richie, “and all would be wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.’’
It’s an intriguing premise, fraught with conflict as Richie, the outsider, seeks to ingratiate himself into the staid little town’s rigid, patrician culture, all the while being forced to reconcile the frustrations of suburban living with his Rockwellian fantasies. Unfortunately, as soon as the Palumbos put down stakes, Giardina takes a detour, jumping ahead 18 years to tell the story of the two Palumbo children, Jack and Joan, whose narratives take them away from the town that is initially made out to be so crucial to the novel.
Jack slinks out of town after high school, skipping college to take up residency in New York City, where he has a series of uninspired dalliances with women, men, and cocaine. He is consumed by an unfounded passion for Norumbega native Christina, or at least the idea of her. His preternatural charm makes him highly attractive to women, but he has no depth or substance, a flaw he is acutely aware of and struggles to overcome.
In contrast to Jack’s easy hedonism, Joan shuts herself up in a Lancasternunnery, using the cloister to hide from the messiness of physical intimacy. That she would eventually lapse in her celibacy is painfully obvious from the outset, but Giardina amplifies the contrivance by making the object of her affection a barely examined Latino construction worker with the dreadfully loaded name Angel.
The suburban New England setting and sexual preoccupations of “Norumbega Park’’ invite comparisons to Tom Perrotta and John Irving, who have mastered this territory with well-developed senses of humor and engaging characters that readers can become invested in. Giardina treats his story with deadly seriousness, and the chilly, colorless Palumbos are unremarkable, even in their dysfunction. It’s hard to muster empathy for characters who do little but wallow in an ambiguous malaise, allowing the rich opportunities afforded them to slip away. Similarly, the disappointment of “Norumbega Park’’ lies in its lost potential, and the decisions that led this promising story down the wrong path.Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.