Fifteen year old Antonia Lucia Labella is sweet, funny and ambitious. She's
eager to shake up the Vatican, and ready to be touched (literally) by love.
Grandmothers, mothers and daughters will enjoy sharing this comic story of a
miraculous first romance.
Antonia lives with her widowed mother and her grandmother above the family's grocery store and attends an all-girl Catholic school in an Italian neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. The Labellas and their neighbors are devout Catholics, and their days are full of prayers, blessings, celebrations and petitions to an attentive assembly of specialized saints ready to help them when they are forgetful, sick, unlucky, or unloved. On the first-person novel's first page (dated November 1, All Saint's Day), Freitas establishes that, to Antonia, these saints are robustly real. When Antonia prays to St. Sebastian, she prays to a "sexy," " ... familiar boy [with a] beautiful, muscular body" even the heavenly can be hot.
The continuous and palpable presence of these saints explains why Antonia doesn't just pray to them. She studies their musty histories in her school library and compiles thick notebooks each year that she calls "Saint Diaries." An expert hagiographer, Antonia knows that no problem is too small to merit a petition and she knows, too, exactly which saint is right for fixing a particular problem. She knows that St. Valentine is no longer an official Catholic saint and that St. Ethelreda is secure in her position as Patron Saint Against Throat Diseases. When her mother disapproves of her bare legs and too-short plaid school uniform skirt, Antonia calls upon St. Denis to smooth things over:
"I sat down with a huff in an old wooden chair to put on my green socks. Anything to get Mom off my back and myself out the door. I said a quick prayer to St. Denis, the Patron Saint Against Strife and Headaches, for added assistance (who, incidentally, is usually portrayed holding his head in his hands because he was, well, beheaded, and therefore the perfect poster boy for people worrying about headaches.)"
Antonia faces life secure in the knowledge that an army of heavenly helpers
is available 24/7 to those who petition them. Yet Antonia insists that she isn't
"... some sort of religious freak... despite all [her] praying to saints and
talking about them every other minute and expounding on their specializations..." Freitas makes sure that Antonia's obsession, though weird, is cheerful. Antonia
rarely meditates on the extremity of the saints' virtues, their sufferings or
their martyrdoms. To Antonia, "Saints. . . are simply the height of Catholic
sophistication," "as cool as royalty."
Although zealous, Antonia's quest for sainthood is more secular job search than unearthly trial. She discovers unoccupied heavenly niches (first offering herself to the Vatican as the Patron Saint of Figs and Fig Trees, then as the Patron Saint of The First Kiss), then offers, through a series of very casual letters to the Pope, to take on the jobs. Antonia knows, but doesn't dwell on the requirement that before beatification (which she often jokes is "beautification") or canonization can take place, two miracles must be performed and the wannabe saint must "achieve great public renown [sic]." She also knows, but ignores, the requirement that in order to achieve sainthood, one must be dead.
Antonia's striving for holiness has more to do with upward mobility than with goodness, self-improvement or self-realization. She explains that her desire for sainthood began when her father, who died a few weeks later in a car accident, gave her a Saint Diary for her seventh birthday inscribed, To my little Antonia, the Patron Saint of Daddy's Heart." Yet we learn very little about her father in the novel (All Antonia says about his death is, "Yeah, it was pretty devastating."). Perhaps that is why Freitas never succeeds in making plausible Antonia's quest to become the first living saint in the history of the Catholic Church, and why this conceit at times diminishes Antonia's narrative: Not once does Antonia question her faith or the beliefs she's inherited or deeply explore the meaning of sainthood.
Freitas is freshest and most interesting when writing about people who aren't Italian and issues that are not related to Catholic saints. The Italians here are painfully stereotypical: Antonia's mother has been a widow for eight years but still dresses in black. She's an amazing maker of homemade pasta and all other Italian foods; she's over emotional, loud, and expresses her love with food.
Antonia-the-teenager is finely drawn. She has an earthy liveliness, an amusing lack of self-knowledge, a distinct voice and a charming yearning for experiencing life, especially a perfect first kiss. Everything connected to Antonia's desire to be kissed, her intuition of what a first kiss means and should be, her fear of that kiss, her dreams of that kiss, and her experience of that kiss, is funny and entertaining. Andy Rotelli, the laconic boy on whom she has a crush, and Michael, the complicated, flirty friend who would become her boyfriend, are also memorable and believable characters.
It is no accident that the closer Antonia comes to experiencing The Kiss, (by both letting it happen and helping to make it happen), the less often she petitions the Saints for assistance. Antonia is coming of age, becoming independent, and taking risks. Still, Freitas fills Antonia's story with miracles: Antonia's kiss has the power to instantly heal the cuts and bruises suffered by two children. And, after a peck on the cheek from Antonia, a woman crippled for twenty years with arthritis walks again. The neighborhood buzzes with news of Antonia's powers, but somehow Antonia is unaware of the effect she has on people or what is being said about her. I'm not sure Freitas needed to suspend the laws of nature and include miracles of the strictly religious and extravagant sort. The Labella's fig trees, Antonia's youthful energy, the generosity of her friends, her mother's love and fresh pasta, and, of course, her first kiss, are miraculous enough.
This review was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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