In Suzanne Palmieri's charming debut, The Witch of Little Italy, you will be bewitched by the Amore women. When young Eleanor Amore finds herself pregnant, she returns home to her estranged family in the Bronx, called by "The Sight" they share now growing strong within her. She has only been back once before when she was ten years old during a wonder-filled summer of sun-drenched beaches, laughter and cartwheels. But everyone remembers that summer except her. Eleanor can't remember anything from before she left the house on her last day there. With her past now coming back to her in flashes, she becomes obsessed with recapturing those memories. Aided by her childhood sweetheart, she learns the secrets still haunting her magical family, secrets buried so deep they no longer know how they began. And, in the process, unlocks a mystery over fifty years old—The Day the Amores Died—and reveals, once and for all, a truth that will either heal or shatter the Amore clan.
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About the Author
SUZANNE PALMIERI is the author of The Witch of Little Italy. She also writes as Suzanne Hayes and lives with her husband and three daughters in New Haven, Connecticut.
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The Witch of Little Italy
By Suzanne Palmieri
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Suzanne Palmieri
All rights reserved.
All the Amore siblings had The Sight in varying degrees, and its fickleness got us into trouble sometimes. Like the time when I was young (and still talking) and I called my friend's husband to give my condolences about her death in a trolley crash, only my friend was still alive and the trolley wouldn't crash until the next day.
It was hard to explain that one, and harder still to keep my friend off the trolley the following day even though I knew her life was at stake. Regular people have such a hard time listening to the low hum of instinct. Don't get me wrong, I tire of the magic now that I'm old. But still, if I'd had it all to do over, I'd choose magic ways. Especially now, when another, more precious life is at stake.
She's coming back now, the girl. She's coming back and bringing my memories with her. Maybe she won't remember anything. Dear God, don't let her remember. If she remembers, she'll land straight back in harm's way. If she remembers, my promise will be broken. And that'd be too bad because it's one of my best skills, promise keeping. And secret keeping. And cartwheels, too.
I used to be able to do cartwheels. When we were little, my sisters couldn't but I could. I can still feel how the air shifted as I kicked over my head and moved my hands. I liked to do things upside down. It bothered Mama. "All the blood will rush to your head!" she would yell. Not to mention Papa and my skirts. "Cover yourself, child! If I can see your bloomers so can the whole block!"
I cartwheeled through my childhood. We weren't poor, but we lived close together. We all lived here on 170th Street in the Bronx for the better portion of our lives. Mama and Papa bought the building when they married. Well, Papa won it. In a fight. They used to fight for money in the streets back then, and one day the wager was a building, and practical Papa, who'd never fought a day in his life, took off his shirt and threw it into the ring.
When we were very young, in those strange, magnificent years between World War I and World War II, we all lived in apartment 1A. Ten people and two bedrooms. Those were the days. Mama was the magic one. She gave us her abilities to see the future, to grow herbs and flowers that held all sorts of possible magical preparations, but the most important thing she gave us was the gift of each other.
But we're old now, Mimi and Fee and me. We're all that remain of the Amore children. Three children left out of eight, each of us carrying the burden of that day in our own way. And as we grow ever older, The Sight grows stronger.
On a cold, dark December night, we woke with the same dream and sat around the kitchen table looking into a bowl full of water. Our old lady hair pinned back, my knobby fingers scribbling on my pad with the pen that's always fastened to my chest.
She's coming, I wrote.
"She's coming," said Mimi.
"On Christmas?" asked Fee.
"Maybe ..." said Mimi.
She's coming. I underlined the words on my pad twice, for emphasis.
Mimi was afraid to believe, afraid to get excited. Her girls so rarely came to see us. But our Sight is strong. It grew as we grew. She should know better than to doubt it.
The Sight helped us through our darkest days, and our magic gardens made our lives wild like rambling roses. But our roses had thorns. Thorns sharper than those who live without magic could ever fathom. Like how Mama knew, even before the fortune-teller told her, that 1945 would be a very, very bad year for the Amores.
In the end, no amount of Sight could prepare us for the trouble that arrived. And those of us who were left carried the burden of "The Day the Amores Died" in our own way. We suffered our own tragedies and kept our own secrets. Secrets that scattered pieces of us into the winds for the sparrows to collect and keep, until the day the girl returned.CHAPTER 2
Eleanor Amore took the home pregnancy test on Christmas Eve in her mother's room at the Taft Hotel. Carmen was in a show at the Shubert Theatre that ran straight through the New Year, so Eleanor had the room to herself. Away from her dorm room at Yale. Far from prying eyes. And, more important, far from Cooper.
The Taft was in walking distance from her dorm, but it was a one-way street. Carmen never came to campus. If Eleanor wanted Carmen, she had to go to Carmen.
Crossing the Green, she looked up at the enormous Christmas tree, its lights glowing even though it wasn't fully dark outside. The festive tree set against the remainder of the pink sunset struck Eleanor, making her lose track of her thoughts. Contrasts always did that to her. She sat down on the cold concrete and dug into her large, velvet patchwork bag for her sketchbook and charcoal. Leaning against a park bench she began to move the charcoal over the white paper in soft smudges. The black on her fingers always made her hopeful, giddy with possibilities. If Eleanor hadn't been so immersed in her impromptu piece of art, she'd have noticed the pigeons cooing and clustering all around her. And what they saw through their small, black eyes was a very different girl than Eleanor believed herself to be. Working away, she smiled as her own eyes sparkled under her knit hat. She drew with broad, confident strokes, her fingers moving with freedom and skill. Eleanor wore fingerless gloves so her fingers would be able to move freely when she wanted them to.
Soon the sun set completely, and it was too dark to draw. Eleanor sighed and closed her sketchbook, buried it with the charcoal in her bag, blew on her fingers to warm them up and finished her walk to the Taft.
She'd been to the hotel enough for the doorman to recognize her, so he let her into the suite even though Carmen wasn't home from the theatre yet. He was nice to her, looked at her with those sad eyes. The ones that said, "What's happened to her?"
Even at Yale, no matter how impressed other students or instructors were with her artwork, she couldn't paint over her own insecurities. No matter how hard she tried to join the crowd, play pool at the Gypsy, she couldn't fit in. The sound of her own fake laugh made her sick. The ironic nature of this "loner" status wasn't lost on Eleanor. Carmen needed to live inside thronging crowds where Eleanor wanted to live in a submarine. Periscope up, periscope down.
Eleanor switched on a soft lamp and took in the posh surroundings of Carmen's suite. Overdone, but entirely comfortable. She made her way to the marble bathroom and ripped the waxy, white pharmacy bag open with shaking fingers, carefully avoiding looking at herself in the mirror.
She peed on the stick and said a silent prayer with her eyes closed. "If there is a God there will not be a pink plus sign."
She peeked through one eye. There was a pink plus sign.
"Crap!" Thoughts ran through her head in odd angles, bumping against one another. A baby? A baby. A life was growing inside of her. She'd known it — somehow felt it — the moment she conceived. And in a way she'd cradled the notion like Golem ever since. Her life would change. That wouldn't be so bad. It was the rest of it, the logistics that were an issue. And the idea of telling Carmen twisted her stomach into knots.
Eleanor balled up the evidence and threw it in the trash under the bathroom sink. The cabinet pulls were crafted out of pale, pink glass, like sea glass. Sea glass ... a twinkle of a memory flashed ... children giggling and wrapping wire around pieces of sea glass. Strange bits and pieces of memory had been coming back like errant drops of water since the moment she felt she might be pregnant. Eleanor didn't know what to make of them, or of anything else. Her world, her lonesome restless world, was turning upside down.
She shook her head and walked slowly back into the living room. Switching off the light she looked out the window at the city below. The center downtown Green glistened, heavily lit with Christmas decorations. "Merry Christmas to me ..." she said to the glass, fogging it up with her breath and drawing a Christmas tree in the gray mist with her fingertip.
Eleanor sat on the couch to wait for her mother in the dark. She put her hands on top of her head feeling for her familiar knit hat. Eleanor tugged on it, pulling the folded brim over her eyes and then unfolding it again.
Carmen had given her the hat when she was thirteen. The last time she'd been to the Bronx to visit with her mother's family. The first time she remembered spending any time with the Amores at all.
Eleanor couldn't remember anything solid from before she was ten years old. There existed a sort of misty haze that lit here and there, mostly in the time between sleeping and waking, and mostly in images and faint whispers. They haunted her, those ungraspable, streaming facets of lost time.
Her first "hard" memory took place on the stoop of their brick building in the Bronx. She'd spent a summer there alone with her great aunts, grandmother, and great uncle. Eleanor didn't remember that summer, she only recalled leaving them standing on the stoop while Carmen scooped her up and deposited her in the back of a checkered cab.
They didn't visit the Bronx again until Eleanor was thirteen. It was fun, that night. For Eleanor at least. Not so much for Carmen, who drank too much wine and became loose-lipped.
"A nice soft green for you, Eleanor. Like your eyes. So pretty," she'd said as she gave Eleanor the hat and a rare compliment from her beautiful, self-absorbed mouth.
Eleanor knew enough about pop psychology to understand her attachment to the hat, but it comforted her, so she wore it. If she had to take it off she'd keep it close. Tuck it into a back pocket, or in her bag.
Keys clattered against the door.
Eleanor took a deep breath and tried not to sweat. Carmen could always smell fear on Eleanor and used it against her. She needed to be strong. Stand her ground. For once.
The door opened. The room flooded with light.
"How'd you get in here?" asked Carmen.
"The doorman, Mom," Eleanor sighed. "And Merry Christmas to you, too." Off to a great start, she thought.
"Screw Christmas," said Carmen, shrugging off a black mink coat and kicking shiny black heels across the floor. "And look at you. You're a mess. That hat? Really? Did anyone see you come in?"
"Um, the doorman?" I'm invisible to her.
Carmen made her way to an ornate cabinet and opened it, revealing a bar. She poured herself a drink in a chubby rocks glass and then looked at herself in the mirror that hung over the bar. She sipped and stared. Eleanor saw her own face next to her mother's reflection.
Carmen was German Expressionism: bold, angular, exotic, exciting. Eleanor was Impressionist watercolor: softer, rounder, pastel. A washed-out version of her mother. Her nose small — Carmen's Roman. Her hair an ordinary dark brown — Carmen's a jet-black mane. And now? Another disappointment to confess.
Eleanor stood. "I'm pregnant," she told Carmen's reflection.
There was a slight stiffening to Carmen's back, and a shift in her eyes ... subtle, like a draft ... a surrealist portrait, Carmen's eyes were windows with sheer curtains moving in the breeze revealing the rooms behind. Empty rooms.
Carmen turned and leaned against the bar. Long and lean. Dark and beautiful. "Have you told Cooper?"
"God, no." said Eleanor.
Carmen took a sip of her drink. "Is he still hitting you?"
Eleanor didn't answer.
"You shouldn't let him do that to you, treat you like that. Call the cops, get a restraining order for Christ's sake," said Carmen.
"It's not that easy, Mom."
"Yes it is. You make it harder than it needs to be. Get some self-esteem, Eleanor. It'll do wonders for your love life."
"Look, Mom," said Eleanor pushing through the caustic remarks, "I know this is all so out of the blue. And I know you and I don't get along that well, but I'm in a really bad position and I was wondering ..." Eleanor paused, a mistake, she knew. A weak spot that her mother could use as leverage later.
Carmen placed her hand to her temples, massaging them. She closed her eyes and asked, "Wondering what? Please enlighten me."
Eleanor let the words tumble out, "I was wondering if I could come with you when you leave in January. Go back to Europe. I can still go to Florence for my internship this summer." Carmen opened her eyes when Eleanor mentioned Europe. Eleanor knew that was the key. Carmen had been trying to persuade her to come back to Europe after Yale for years. Eleanor knew she couldn't live up to Carmen's expectations, but she also knew Carmen didn't know that yet. With Carmen's false hope on Eleanor's side, she asked the real question. "If you'll help me."
"Help you with what?" Carmen asked, genuine confusion furrowing her brow.
"Well," Big breath. Go on, you have nothing to lose ... "I'd need help with the baby."
The word baby fell hard into immediate icy silence.
"How dare you?" asked Carmen through clenched teeth, her eyes on fire.
"Please? Please what?"
"Please calm down and consider this for a second."
"What the hell do you want from me? What reaction did you expect? You come here, drop this baby bomb, and then ask me if you can come back with me to Europe?" Carmen's hands tightly gripped the lip of the bar behind her. "And I'm like, sure ... and I almost, almost thought you were going to be normal. To react to this thing like a normal young woman would. You know ... have an abortion and then get on with it. And I thought, just for a split second, that we could actually get along again, you know? But, no. You want me to be your fucking nanny?"
Eleanor clamped her hands over her ears. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do ... I don't know what to do," she whispered to herself.
Carmen took a deep breath and smoothed back her hair. She faced the mirror again, pulled a little at her thick eyelashes and regained her composure. Eleanor looked up just in time to see Carmen paste a pleasant, motherlike smile on her face. It felt eerie to Eleanor who could still clearly see through the façade, a rendition of Edvard Munch's The Scream.
"Eleanor," she crooned, joining her daughter on the couch, "I know I'm being hard on you, but really, baby — listen to me. Kids are life suckers. They suck up your life and then forget all the good things you did for them. All the fun times you had." She reached forward and took a cigarette out of the pack on the coffee table and lit it with a fancy silver lighter.
"Mom. My memory loss is not my fault."
Carmen took a long drag from her cigarette, "You know, I read an article on kids and memory loss. Said sometimes they make the whole thing up for attention." She put her fingers to her mouth to remove some invisible tobacco, a habit she still had from smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
"Are you kidding me?" Eleanor leapt up and paced the room. "You are the parent, Mom. You're supposed to know what happened to me." In all the years Eleanor and Carmen had quietly struggled with getting back her lost childhood Carmen was never able to answer Eleanor's questions. "Did I hit my head?" "Did I fall down a flight of stairs?" "What happened?" It still aggravated her to no end and a ball of anger bubbled up as she looked at her mother.
Carmen exhaled and squinted through a fog of smoke. "Forget it. Oh, wait, you already did." Carmen laughed, a sound that resembled diamonds cutting glass. "The thing is, you can't come with me if you're going to keep this baby."
"So where do you propose I go?" asked Eleanor.
"I'm not proposing anything. I don't support this decision. Case closed."
Eleanor's knees went weak. Her forehead began to sweat and itch under the hat. What am I going to do? she thought, her mind racing. She couldn't, wouldn't tell Cooper. Endangering herself was one thing; her baby was another thing entirely. Carmen was her last, best hope — and now it was gone.
She walked around the room in circles as Carmen smoked and poured herself another drink. Eleanor stopped in front of a photograph propped up on a table in front of her. A photograph she knew well, it was always wherever Carmen was. It was one of two constant things in their vagabond life. The photo and the rocking chair.
The rocking chair — Let me call you sweetheart, I'm in love, with, you ... Carmen rocked and sang to baby Eleanor. She could feel the love pour out. The sweet satisfaction of chubby hands wrapped in silky hair ...
Excerpted from The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri. Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Palmieri. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Winter,
8. The Sisters Amore,
9. Elly and Liz,
Part Two: Spring,
13. The Sisters Amore,
22. The Sisters Amore (Past),
Part Three: Summer,
32. The Amore Sisters,
34. The Day the Amores Died,
Reading Group Guide,
Praise for The Witch of Little Italy,
About the Author,
Reading Group Guide
1. Facing what seems like an impossible situation, Eleanor decides to leave all that she knows and return to her estranged family in the Bronx. This decision was hasty, but all of her instincts were telling her to go. Would you have made the same choice? Were there any other options that may have taken the story in another direction? How often do you trust your own instinct (instead of logic) when making a decision?
2. The bond that Mimi, Itsy, and Fee share is a strong one. How do you think the loss they suffered together as young women helped define their relationship?
3. Mama, Margaret Green, is the keeper of all the wisdom in the familybut she has many flaws. What are some moments when Margaret was "less than perfect"? Did her flaws diminish her relationship with her children? Why or why not?
4. Many young women suffer from domestic abuse in romantic relationships. The signature of these relationships is that they are difficult to leave. Yet Elly seems to be able to walk away from Cooper without too much internal questioning. What do you think helped her to overcome the abuse so quickly?
5. Though the women in this novel consider themselves witches, what kind of magic do they practice? Is this very far from the traditions, habits, and superstitions that can be found in almost every family? What were some "magical" traditions that you remember from growing up (examples: "Step on the Crack, Break Your Mother's Back," black cats, the number 13…)? How do you think these superstitions or traditions can bring people, especially family, together?
6. Anthony is very sure of his love for Elly. How does he know her so well? He knows her better than she knows herself, and he helps her rediscover the memories that hold the key to her entire personality. In many ways, their love story is the stuff of movies. Has there ever been anyone that you loved, no matter what? How do you think a love like that shapes you? How do you think it shaped Elly?
7. Throughout the novel Itsy has a secret that she holds very deara secret that, had her family known sooner, might have changed many things. How do you think their lives might have been different if Itsy had, at the time, added to the Amore tragedies, but in a sense, freed herself of the weight of her secret?
8. Mimi and Carmen have a complicated relationship. Mimi never took care of Carmen emotionally when she was a child because The Sight told her that Carmen would leave one day. Do you think if she had, things might have been different? Or would Carmen have left anyway? Was it in Carmen's nature to be cold and leave, or was that her nature because of her lack of nurturing?
9. Elly changed significantly from the first page to the last. Do you think this was because she recovered all her memories or because she learned what real loveboth familial and romanticis? Could she have become whole with only one or the other? Discuss.
10. There is an unwritten element of the adage "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" with regard to Mimi and the aunts. Do you think this a purposeful theme added by the author, or did it occur organically? And, how does this theme play into the events of the story?