Little Italy

Rita Ciresi explores her dreams in her latest.

Sometimes I Dream in Italian, by Rita Ciresi. Delacorte Press, $23.95.

The irony of the title of this clever novel constructed of short stories is that its speaker neither understands nor speaks Italian. Angelina (Angel) and her sister Pasqualina (Lina) live in Connecticut with their Mama and Babbo. They want blonde hair and blue eyes and to be as far away from their Italian heritage and the Catholic Church as they can get.

Coming-of-age stories can be dreary, but this one rolls briskly along. Babbo works as a "soda man," playing the horses on the side, while Mama keeps the tiny house, pinches pennies and enters any contest that comes along. "It's the American way," she explains. Asked what she misses most about Italy, she answers, "Nothing! The streets smelled like mule poop. And imagine, there were no prizes." Babbo, king of the smelly feet, "thought about it for a moment before he said, 'Sunlight.'" The girls try their best to romanticize their background, but upon sight of their parents, shake their heads and weep.

Since their Babbo, much to their dismay, is a soda man instead of in the Mafia, they don't have enough money to go to the good schools and dress like the other good Catholic girls. Lina, the beauty and the rebel, learns to smoke dope with the black guys while Angel develops the art of sulking in quiet desperation.

Episodes evolve slyly from fanciful stories to tales of serious troubles. The oddness of the sisters' upbringing bonds them like cement. They are so weighed down by exclusion that they have a difficult time making anything of their own lives. "Why do you always define yourself in terms of your family?" a near-miss fiancé asks Angel. "They are not you," he says.

Of course, he's dead wrong.