cover image SACRED TIME


Ursula Hegi, . . Touchstone, $25 (244pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-5598-1

A boisterously funny opening is followed by family tragedy in this moving if occasionally manipulative novel by Hegi (Stones from the River , etc.) charting a tumultuous half-century in the lives of a delightful Italian-American Bronx family. Seven-year-old Anthony Amedeo's comfortable life with his caterer father, Victor, and his mother, Leonora, is disrupted when his ne'er-do-well Uncle Malcolm goes "elsewhere" (a family euphemism for prison) and his Aunt Floria moves into the Amedeo apartment with her eight-year-old twin daughters. They arrive just before Christmas 1953, and soon afterwards, one of the twins plunges to her death from an open window. The tragedy will define the lives of everyone in the two families and change them as surely as their Bronx is changing. Even before the accident, trouble was brewing. Leonora, aware that her husband is having an affair, considers divorce and dallies with a much younger man, but reluctantly allows her philandering husband to return. Floria, meanwhile, has long been in love with the best man at her wedding, and after three decades of married life, a trip to her beautiful ancestral hometown in Italy helps her decide to leave Malcolm and marry the best man. It is Anthony, however, who bears the novel's greatest burden. He witnesses his cousin's plunge to her death and lives a smothered life even after he becomes a chef and marries, always under the unspoken cloud of the family's suspicion that he pushed the girl. The novel's final chapters, in which Hegi's characters finally come to terms with their grief, rely too heavily on italicized forays into the past, but even readers who resist the bathos may be gripped despite themselves. (Dec. 2)

Forecast: This is something of a departure for Hegi, who usually writes on German themes, but she vividly evokes the Italian-American community of the Bronx, and readers will recognize her skill at capturing the complex dynamics of large families.