A lyrical breakout debut that delves into the bonds of female friendship and the fraught situations that test the limits of sisterhood. Set in the 1940s, friends Sofia and Antonia take center stage as the pulsing heart of a mafia-driven Brooklyn family. Krupitsky’s velvety prose gives these women a voice in a male-dominated community, and ultimately asks what you would be willing to sacrifice for the sake of The Family. A must read.
A TODAY Show Read with Jenna Book Club Pick
A captivating debut novel about the tangled fates of two best friends and daughters of the Italian mafia, and a coming-of-age story of twentieth-century Brooklyn itself.
Two daughters. Two families. One inescapable fate.
Sofia Colicchio is a free spirit, loud and untamed. Antonia Russo is thoughtful, ever observing the world around her. Best friends since birth, they live in the shadow of their fathers’ unspoken community: the Family. Sunday dinners gather them each week to feast, discuss business, and renew the intoxicating bond borne of blood and love.
But the disappearance of Antonia’s father drives a whisper-thin wedge between the girls as they grow into women, wives, mothers, and leaders. Their hearts expand in tandem with Red Hook and Brooklyn around them, as they push against the boundaries of society’s expectations and fight to preserve their complex but life-sustaining friendship. One fateful night their loyalty to each other and the Family will be tested. Only one of them can pull the trigger before it’s too late.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Shooting a gun is like jumping into cold water.
You stand there, poised on the edge, muscles coiled to leap, and at every moment until the last, there is the possibility of not doing it. You are filled with power: not as you jump, but just before. And the longer you stand there, the more power you have, so that by the time you jump the whole world is waiting.
But the moment you leap, you are lost: at the mercy of the wind and gravity and the decision you made moments before. You can do nothing but watch helplessly as the water looms closer and closer and then there you are, submerged and soaking, ice gripping your torso with its hands, breath caught at the back of your throat.
So a gun unfired holds its power. In the moments before trigger clicks and bullet is unleashed, beyond your grasp, out of your control. As thunder crashes in the distant wet clouds and the electric air raises the small hairs on your arms. As you stand, feet planted like your papa taught you just in case, shoulder flexed against the recoil.
As you decide and decide again.
Sofia Colicchio is a dark-eyed animal, a quick runner, a loud shouter. She is best friends with Antonia Russo, who lives next door.
They live in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Red Hook, which is bordered by the neighborhood that will become Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill. Red Hook is younger than Lower Manhattan, but older than Canarsie and Harlem, those wild outskirts where almost anything goes. Many of the buildings are low wooden lean-tos near the river, but the rooftops climb higher away from the waterfront, toward still-low but more permanent brick townhouses, everything a dark gray from the wind and the rain and the soot in the air.
Sofia’s and Antonia’s families moved to Red Hook on the instructions of their fathers’ boss, Tommy Fianzo. Tommy lives in Manhattan, but he needs help managing his operations in Brooklyn. When their neighbors ask Carlo and Joey what they do, Carlo and Joey say, this and that. They say, importing and exporting. Sometimes they say, we’re in the business of helping people. Then their new neighbors understand and do not ask any more questions. They communicate via snapped-shut window shade, and by telling their children, it’s none of our concern, loudly, in the hallway.
The other people in the neighborhood are Italian and Irish; they work the docks; they build the skyscrapers sprouting like beanstalks from the Manhattan landscape. Though the violence has abated since the adults in this neighborhood were children, it is still there, hovering in the spaces between streetlamp circles.
Sofia and Antonia know that they are to tell a grown-up before going to one another’s houses, but not why. Their world consists of the walk to and from the park in the summers, the clang and hiss of winter radiators, and all year round, the faraway splash and echo of men working the docks. They know certain things absolutely, and do not know that there is anything they do not know; rather, the world comes into focus as they grow. That’s an elm tree, Antonia says one morning, and Sofia realizes there is a tree in front of her building. Uncle Billy is coming for dinner tonight, says Sofia, and Antonia suddenly knows that she hates Uncle Billy: his pointed nose, the shine of his shoes, the stink of cigars and sweat he leaves in his wake. Cross the street or you’ll wake the maga, they remind each other, giving a wide berth to the smallest building on the block, where everyone knows—but how do they know?—that a witch lives on the third floor.
Sofia and Antonia know that Uncle Billy is not their real Uncle, but he is Family anyway. They know they are to call him Uncle Billy, like Uncle Tommy, and that they have to play nicely with Uncle Tommy’s children at Sunday dinner. They know there will be no discussion in this regard.
They know that Family is everything.
Sofia lives in an apartment with three bedrooms and a wide window in the kitchen, which looks out onto the no-backyard-access backyard. The landlord sits out there in the summer with no shirt on and falls asleep with cigarettes dangling from his thick fingers. The midday heat burns the places his body is exposed to the sun, leaving the underside of his round belly and arms lily-white. Sofia and Antonia are not supposed to stare. In Sofia’s room there is a bed with a new bedspread, which is red flannel; there are three dolls with porcelain faces lined up on the shelf; there is a plush rug she likes to sink her toes into.
Down the hall from her bedroom there is her parents’ room, where she is not supposed to go unless it’s an emergency. Cara mia, her papa says, there have to be some things just for Mamma and Papa, no? No, she responds, and he makes claws of his hands and chases her down the hall to tickle her, and she shrieks and runs. And then there is an empty room with a small cradle from when Sofia was a baby, which is no one’s. Her mamma goes in there sometimes and folds very small clothes. Her papa says, come on, let’s not do this. Come on, and leads her mamma out.
Sofia has just started to notice that people are afraid of her father.
At the deli or the café, he is served first. Signore, the waiters say. So nice to see you again. Here—on the house. It’s a specialty. Prego. Sofia holds him by the hand like a mushroom growing from the base of a tree. He is her shade; her nourishment; her foundation. And this must be Sofia, they say. Her cheeks are squeezed; her hair is ruffled.
Sofia pays only a glancing attention to other adults. She notices when they enter her father’s gravitational field, and when the warmth of his attention skips from one to another. She notices that her father always seems to be the tallest in the room. She accepts the offerings of jellied candies and biscotti handed down by men who, even Sofia can tell, are more concerned with currying her father’s favor.
After his meetings Sofia’s papa takes her for gelato; they sit at the counter on Smith Street and he sips thick black espresso while she tries not to drip stracciatella down the front of her shirt. Sofia’s papa smokes long thin cigarettes and tells her about his meetings. We’re in the business of helping people, he tells Sofia. For that, they pay us a little bit, here and there. So Sofia learns: you can help people, even if they are afraid of you.
She is his girl, she knows that. His favorite. He sees himself in her. Sofia can smell the danger on her father like a dog smells a storm coming: an earthy quickening in his wake. A taste like rust. She knows that means he would do anything for her.
Sofia can feel the pulse of the universe thrumming through her at every moment. She is so alive she cannot separate herself from anything around her. She is a ball of fire and at any moment she might consume her apartment, the street outside, the park where she goes with Antonia, the church and the streets her papa drives on for work, and the tall Manhattan buildings across the water. It is all tinder.
Instead of burning the whole world Sofia contents herself with asking why, Papa, why, what is that.
Antonia Russo lives in an apartment with two bedrooms, one that is hers and one that is her parents’. Her mamma and papa leave the door to their room open and Antonia sleeps best when she can hear the cresting waves of her papa snoring. Her kitchen has no window and a small round wooden table instead of the square dining table Sofia’s family has. Her mamma scrubs and scrubs the floor and then sighs and says, there is nothing to be done about this. In the living room there are pictures on all the walls, the grayish-brown old-fashioned kind where everyone looks upset. The pictures are of Antonia’s grandparents, before they left theoldcountry. Sometimes her mamma looks at them and kisses the necklace around her neck and shuts her eyes tightly, just for a moment.
Antonia finds that though she is expected to stay inside her own body, she often feels like she is in Sofia’s body, or her mamma’s body, or the body of the princess in a story. It is easy for her to slip away, spread out, and exist in the whole universe instead of within the confines of her own skin.
In the mornings, Antonia lines up her stuffed animals and names them. She makes her bed without being asked.
Sofia often appears in the doorway of Antonia’s home with unbrushed hair and dirt under her fingernails; she possesses the effortless light of the sun, sure she will rise, confident that she can wake everyone up. Antonia is both attracted and repelled: fascinated in the way a child will circle a dead bird, admire a lone feather, build a shrine to it. She is scrupulous about her own appearance. She wants to drink Sofia, to fill herself with her friend’s addictive magic.
Sofia and Antonia spend all of their time together, because they are young, and they live next door to one another, and their parents encourage their friendship. It is convenient for parents when your child can always be found with someone else’s.
The texture of Sofia’s walk is as familiar to Antonia as the heft and rhythm of her own; her reflection in Sofia’s brown eyes is more grounding than the reflection of a mirror. Sofia, for her part, recognizes Antonia by way of a smell of powder and lilies, left in her room long after her friend has gone home for dinner; by the perfectly stacked tower of blocks on her shelf; in the wave of her favorite doll’s neatly brushed hair.
Sofia and Antonia do not realize that their friendship is undisturbed by other children.
Sofia and Antonia close their eyes and make the world. Together, they go on safari, narrowly escaping bloody death in the teeth of a lion. They travel in airplanes, to Sicilia, where their families are from, and to Japan, and to Panama. They survive in the wilderness with only two sticks and a tin of Christmas cookies to sustain them; they escape quicksand and locusts. They marry princes, who ride down bedraggled Red Hook avenues on horseback. Sofia and Antonia straddle their own horses. They lean forward and whisper into their horses’ ears. They shout, fly like the wind! and are hushed by their mammas. Go play somewhere else, the mammas say. Sofia and Antonia play on the moon.
Antonia feels free next to Sofia, who is lit by an internal flame that Antonia can warm her hands and face next to. Antonia catches herself just watching Sofia sometimes; staring at the place her dress tugs between her shoulders as she hunches over a table, or forgetting to rinse her hands as they wash up side by side in the bathroom before dinner. If I can see you, I must be here. Antonia feels that without Sofia she might float away, disintegrate into the night air. And Sofia, comfortable in the spotlight of her friend’s undivided attention, feels herself growing brighter as it shines. If you can see me, I must be here.
Antonia and Sofia live, mostly, with their mothers, and with each other. Their fathers are often gone, though Sofia’s father comes home for supper often enough that she can feel his presence like bookends to her days: filling the house with the smell of Brilliantine and espresso in the morning; rumbling around the kitchen just before she goes to bed at night. Sometimes, the click of the front door and his retreating footsteps just as she falls into sleep: leaving again.
Antonia has no idea that her father’s absence two or three nights a week is unusual compared with other fathers in her neighborhood, or that her mother once broke down crying in the butcher, overcome with a deep, existential exhaustion from planning meals “for two or three,” or that deep in the belly of the night when her father comes home, he tip toes into Antonia’s room and cups her forehead in his palm and shuts his eyes in prayer. Antonia doesn’t know what he does, only that it is work with Uncle Billy or Uncle Tommy. He has meetings, Sofia once told her. Meetings about helping people. But something about that seems insubstantial and incomplete to Antonia. Here is what she knows: she knows that while he is gone her mother is never the right size and shape – either larger than life, trailing a cloud of matter and chaos around as she obsessively cleans, arranges, fixes, fusses; or small, skeletal, a shadow of her usual self. And Antonia, five years old, depends upon her mother the way the ocean depends on the moon: she grows and shrinks accordingly.
She imagines her father sitting in a small room. Uncle Billy smokes cigars and swivels back and forth in his chair and gesticulates fiercely and shouts into a telephone. Uncle Tommy stands in a corner and watches over them; he is the boss. Her father sits quietly, with pen and paper. Antonia puts him at a desk and gives him an expression of deep concentration. He stares out the window, and occasionally drops his gaze to scribble something on his paper. He stays out of the fray.
Antonia thinks she can make the world up if she shuts her eyes.
At night, when her mother has put her to bed, Antonia can feel the apartment straining up away from its foundations. The weight of herself and her mother is not enough to keep it attached to the earth, and so it bucks and floats and Antonia shuts her eyes and builds foundation brick by brick until she drifts into sleep.
In the next room, her mother reads, or, more than once, slips on shoes and goes next door to drink three fingers of wine with Sofia’s mother, Rosa. The two women are subdued, weighted down by the knowledge that their husbands are out doing god-knows-what, god-knows-where. They are both twenty-seven; by day, each of them can conjure the blinding glow of youth, but by lamplight, maps of concern crease each of their faces; some pockets of skin darken with exhaustion while others thin over the bone. They, like so many women before them, are made older by worry, and stretched taut by the ticking seconds, which they swear pass slower at night than during the light of day.
Antonia’s mamma, Lina, has a nervous constitution. As a child Lina stayed in to read when the other children played rough outside. She looked back and forth five or six times before crossing streets. She startled easily. Lina’s mother often looked at her sternly, shook her head, sighed. Lina will always be able to picture this. Look; shake; sigh. Marrying Carlo Russo did not make her less nervous.
Every time Antonia’s papa Carlo leaves the house, fear whittles away at Lina’s person until he is home again. And when Tommy Fianzo decides he needs Carlo to spend nights picking up and transporting crates of Canadian liquor each week, fear grips Lina around the throat and will not let her sleep at all.
So Lina develops a system: she doesn’t worry until the sun comes up. When she is awakened by the pulled-taffy air stretched between herself and Carlo, by the knowledge that he is elsewhere and has taken the most vulnerable part of her with him, Lina slips out of bed and alights on the floor lightly, like a bird. She pads down the steps of her building and up into the Colicchio apartment next door. She uses her spare key, and she sits on the couch with Rosa until she can bear the silence of her own apartment.
Just before dawn, Lina knows a key will turn in the front door. Carlo will move quietly into the apartment. And it, and she, will settle back down into the earth where they belong.