Today’s team review is from Frank, you can find out more about Frank here https://franklparker.com/
Frank has been reading The Bird That Sang In Color by Grace Mattioli
What is the secret of happiness? According to Donna, the first person narrator of this family saga, it is doing your own thing, not making room in your life for other people.
Donna is one of six children of second generation Italian migrants living in a New Jersey suburb. Her story begins in 1970 and continues in instalments at 3 and 4 year intervals until the present day.
At the centre of the story is her older brother, Vincent, the ‘Bird that Sang in Color’ of the title. The family is comparatively well to do. All six children have everything they could possibly want. Not unnaturally their father tries to control their lives, steering them towards college and a well paid career, or, in the case of the girls, to marry a rich man. He is an alcoholic who is frequently abusive towards his wife, the matriarch who does her best to protect her children from his angry outbursts.
It is a pattern that repeats in Donna’s own marriage to a young law graduate with whom she has four children. Unlike her mother, Donna is able to have a life beyond her family responsibilities, returning to college, first as a mature student, then as a teacher. Throughout, she feels responsible for Vincent as well as her own family, encouraging him to make more of his talents as an artist and musician. It is only when she is much older that she realises how mistaken she has been.
“I started trying to convince him to listen to our parents and to take himself real seriously and go for all that stuff that I thought was necessary for him to be happy, like a good career and a family, a house, a nice car, the whole nine yards. . . [Now} I realized that he was happy without all those things, and the big irony was that I had all those things, but I was unhappy. . . I had it all, and I was miserable.”
I opened my previous review for Rosie Amber by arguing that it is wrong to characterise a book by the gender of the intended readership. After reading The Bird That Sang in Color, I’m less certain. This is very much a woman’s book, in that it presents an essentially feminist interpretation of family life, showing us the sacrifices that women make and extolling the life choices of the one male character who eschews such responsibilities.
As a man, I would have wanted to see some recognition of the fact that the comfortable life that Donna and her siblings lead is as much the consequence of their father’s hard work, and the rents paid by the tenants of the apartments his property company owns, as of their mother’s home-making. The same goes for her husband. She seems to take for granted his working two jobs whilst studying. She glosses over his frustrations at his inability to convince a biased jury that the person he is defending deserves their sympathy. She even conceives a fourth child despite being aware that he does not want it.
All too often feminists who condemn traditional family values because they limit women’s lives overlook the fact that men’s lives are similarly limited. The imperatives attached to being the sole, or main, breadwinner imprison men just as securely into careers chosen for the income generated rather than the pleasure taken in performing the task.
I disagree profoundly with Donna’s answer to the question “What is the secret of happiness.” And I suspect that, if she were honest, she would realise that her own happiness, in the company of her children and grand children, is just as valid as that which she imagines Vincent achieved in his life free of responsibilities. More so, because it has been bought by the sacrifices she and others have made.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, and not only to women readers. Firstly, because the periods and places are so well realised, with the kind of simple, yet revealing, strokes Donna admires in her brother’s drawings. This is writing of the highest quality. Secondly, because, whilst I disagree with the central message, it is a book that makes you think, to question your assumptions. And that is something that the best literature sets out to do. I am grateful to Grace Mattioli for making me question my own beliefs about the nature of happiness.
Part family drama and part self-actualization story, this is about Donna Greco, who in her teens, subscribes to a conventional view of success in life—and pushes her freewheeling, artistic brother, Vincent to do the same. However, he remains single, childless, and subsists in cramped apartments. She harbors guilt for her supposed failure until she discovers a sketch-book he’d made of his life, which prompts her own journey to live authentically.
While this textured story combines serious issues such as alcoholism, death, and family conflict, it’s balanced with wit and humor and is filled with endearing, unforgettable characters. The story spans decades, beginning in 1970 and ending in the present. Readers will be immersed in this tale as it poses an intriguing question: “What pictures will you have of yourself by the end of your life?”