Tempting Faith Di Napoli
by Lisa Gabriele
Published by Doubleday Canada
291 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Lisa Gabriele's debut novel Tempting Faith Di Napoli gets first prize for its cover art: a plain white background with title, author's name and a brightly-colored candy crucifix. The novel is in essence a comic take on a Catholic schoolgirl's tumultuous upbringing, so the image couldn't be more appropriate. Would that the whole novel lived up to the promise of that great cover.
Lisa Gabriele is a TV producer and cinematographer based in Toronto, and her visual/sight-gag orientation shows here. The novel has the flavor of a disguised memoir in its informal, gossipy first-person approach. Faith DiNapoli's Italian-born father pronounces her name "Fate." The irony is not lost on her: the relentless tug-of-war between faith (divine grace) and fate (terrifying randomness).
Faith's rough-around-the-edges Mom, Nancy, is Italian too, in a watered-down sort of way, "lapsed" culturally as well as spiritually. But her more traditional construction-worker Dad insists they adhere to the letter of the law, if not the spirit: "As Catholics, I would rank us average. We went to church. We made a big to-do about the Sacraments. We were all baptized, which meant we were going to heaven, unless we really screwed up. Which we did. Some of us, anyway."
Faith's views on God are flavored with fear: "He was in charge of an intricate system of balances, and since, in those days, hell rained only on the DiNapolis, I figured we must have done something really, really bad to deserve all this sadness."
The novel pivots around Faith's rocky relationship with her strident, chronically discontented Mom: "My mother only had one goddamn set of eyes, two hands, for chrissakes, and four bloody kids." These kids ("Matthew, Faith, Hope, and Charlie -- the unholy thud of our baby brother's name made us sound more like Mousketeers than disciples") are the bane of her existence, though she cuffs them around with all the rough-edged devotion of a mother cat.
Faith would like everyone in the family to be as devoted to Jesus as she is, but knows it isn't possible: "If my mother was a sinner, not going to church, so, therefore, hell, I would need to hold the fort here. I would plead her case and save her soul." (As you can see from this small excerpt, Gabriele is inordinately fond of commas.)
The family lives in relative poverty on the outskirts of fictional Belle River, Ontario, in the 1980s. Dad drinks, Mom swears, the kids fight. The family is socially ostracized for reasons Faith doesn't completely understand, but she is aware that Mom must have done something the community deemed unforgivable. Eventually her parents separate, not just because Dad needs the construction work out in Calgary but because there was never much of a marriage to begin with.
This novel is not so much driven by plot or character as by atmosphere: Gabriele goes to great pains to recreate the 1980s, from primitive Pong video games to Gremlins to rabbit-fur bomber jackets (hey, I had one of those!). Though these nostalgic touches are fun, there is something missing from the story -- sufficient momentum, perhaps, or a sense of a dramatic arc. Things meander along, much the way they do in life -- but novels aren't life, so much as a stage-managed compression or reordering of reality.
Faith gets crushes on boys, experiments sexually, shoplifts to get attention -- in other words, she acts out against her beloved Catholicism every chance she gets. The only way she can figure out what is going on in her messed-up family is to read her mother's diary. She's aware her Mom keeps secrets -- dark ones -- but the two never come close enough for any kind of heart-to-heart connection.
There is some gentle whimsy here, a few laughs, as when Faith is sent to a Catholic retreat for wayward kids: "The weekend was like being given a backstage pass to a show that was put on for the benefit of my doomed soul." It's a harmless enough book, but it gets a little tedious with all those long, comma-chopped sentences and endless descriptive detail about what the girls are wearing and what the boys are driving. A plot may be an artificial device, but a novel needs one to keep things moving forward. When a sort of climax happens at the very end, it feels like too little, too late. Not only that: the ending is awfully dark for what is in essence a comic story.
The main payoff is in Faith's late-blooming admiration for her mother's "ability to negotiate every level of hell imaginable." In other words, Faith grows up, and her mother suddenly seems a whole lot smarter. If this were enough to sustain nearly 300 pages, Tempting Fatih Di Napoli might have lived up to the promise of that delicious cover. | January 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.