Plot/Idea: This stunning novel, set in the 1950s through the early '70s, originates primarily in New York City, although the story takes a brief foray into Vermont. Themes of racism, sexuality, and self-discovery are richly developed through the narrative's multilayered characters and their intense experiences.
Prose: Dramatic, evocative prose transports readers directly to 1960s New York City: the Village, gay bars, and even parochial schools are forcefully depicted, interspersed with colorful food and clothing descriptions. Communes in Vermont make an appearance as well, dynamic and immersive in their portrayal.
Originality: New York City in the '60s is a common setting, but the strength of the characters makes this novel come alive. The story seamlessly melds the Vietnam War, racism, and growing up gay—as well as fragments of the second World War—into a powerful journey of self-discovery and social justice.
Character/Execution: The characters are multilayered and powerful, with distinctive emotions and experiences that yield meaningful narrative arcs. Especially memorable are central protagonist Gianni; Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Raffaella; and Black drag queen Gabriel, whose immeasurable kindness gives Gianni a safe place to come into his own.
Date Submitted: May 25, 2023
Sgambati’s prose is fluid and evocative, capturing the nuances of characters, emotions, and events that will linger in readers’ minds long after the novel’s conclusion. Gianni’s connection with Raffaella, a middle-aged Holocaust survivor, and Gabriel, an African American drag queen who takes homeless youth under their wing, is the catalyst for his healing, and Sgambati’s mirroring of Gianni’s transformation through pivotal background events, including the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement, adds thematic depth to the narrative. Particularly moving is the connection between Gunter, Gabriel’s close German friend who was imprisoned in Buchenwald for being gay, and Raffaella, who’s certain Gunter helped her when she arrived at the concentration camp.
Sgambati’s sharp, well etched cast steals the show in this touching story, and Gianni’s reshaping is both heartrending and inspiring, as he initially finds an escape in his work at the theatre (aptly naming his business “Sanctuary”), but later acknowledges his need to move on—in Raffaella’s words, “at some point, a sanctuary becomes a prison.” The rewarding relationships Gianni gains, and loses, form the cornerstone for Sgambati’s message that “new and unexpected beginning[s]” are often the most powerful.
Takeaway: A tender coming-of-age about a gay adoptee in post-World War II New York.
Great for fans of: Margot Livesey’s The Boy in the Field, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A