Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Until I Smile at You: A Family Story of Love, Tragedy and the Depths of Human Forbearance by Roseann Lombardi

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 348 pages
·         Publisher: Two Harbors Press, 2010
·         Price: $16.95
·         ISBN-10: 1935097164
·         ISBN-13: 978-1935097167
With a title taken from Frank Sinatra’s song, “Until I Smile at You,” the daughter of Anna Lauro and Tony Lombardi, Roseann Lombardi, has written the story of her parents, set in Long Island, New York, in the 1940s. It unfolds as the young couple, Anna and Tony, are on their way to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to gain answers to Anna’s ever-increasing health problems.
 Anna and Tony meet just prior to World War II. Both are Italian-Americans, although Anna’s family is presented as distant at best, cruel and uncaring at worst. Tony’s family is presented as quite the opposite—warm, gregarious, loving. This is the family that raised the author.
It begins as a passionate love story. When Tony spots Anna on the beach, he is struck by one of those fairy tale moments of “love at first sight.” Anna works as a model at Lord & Taylor, a dark beauty, and it doesn’t take long for Tony to win her over with his flirtatious, funny, charming manner. He can hardly think of anything else but his beautiful Anna, and as he is drafted into the war, Anna is heartbroken to lose her new love to the military. When he comes back home on leave a short while later, the two decide to elope.
Granted, these are the 1940s. Women were treated much different back then, or at least, the chauvinism was much more blatant than it is in today’s more subtle objectification. Not knowing any different, most women acquiesced to being treated as secondary citizens, if that, and more commonly as their husbands’ property, under his rule. As Anna Lauro’s health begins to show ominous symptoms that eventually lead to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), her health, her body, her future, her life is increasingly taken up by others and out of her own hands.
It is infuriating to read the exchange between the doctor at Mayo Clinic and Tony. It is the husband who is called in and told the diagnosis, not the patient herself. No one bothers to discuss her condition with her. It is the husband who makes the determination that she not be told for as long as he can pull off this cruel ruse. From this moment onward, it seems that Anna increasingly loses control over herself, her own health and her own future. What control she does have is stolen away by MS.
Bringing her back to the family, eagerly awaiting the diagnosis, Tony whitewashes everything.
“All the tests were inconclusive and it’ll be just a matter of time before she’s feeling like her old self again. Isn’t that right, Hon?” Tony smiled at her. (Page 196)
And Anna smiled back, even as her body was falling apart, her mind gradually unraveling. There’s an uncomfortable edge of abuse here, with the codependent woman (as most all women were in that time period) being submissive, never losing her smile or her positive attitude, never allowing her man to look bad, painfully faithful to the end.
“In a whisper, Rose [Tony’s mother] asked, ‘Does Anna know?’
“’No!’ he angrily answered. ‘And that’s the way it stays!’
“’But … but, Tony,’ she hesitated. ‘Is that fair to her?’
“’Probably not, maybe not, but that’s the way it’s going to be for now.’” (Page 199)
At last, unable to avoid the knowledge of her worsening condition, Anna does demand answers, declaring that it is better to know so that she can understand what is happening to her. While rationalizing that he is protecting her, Tony is, in reality, only protecting himself and avoiding his own discomfort.
The author presents this story of the young couple, her parents, with glowing fairy tale perfection. Right down to the blissful, simultaneously satisfying consummation of the wedding night, these two can do no wrong.
For perhaps the first two-thirds of the story, the sweetness of the story can be overly saccharin. The good guys are so very good; the bad guys are so very bad, and love is pure and true. The story between the lines, however, is that the romantic charmer can have a shadowy underside. Doing everything for the lady can later translate into an overly controlling husband. The man, who so dearly loves his wife for her physical beauty, may not love her enough when she falls ill. And the danger in writing a memoir so black and white, so pretty, is that the author fails to earn the reader’s trust.
What keeps the reader going through all that sugar is the storyline of the medical diagnosis, wanting to know what happens to Anna as she physically deteriorates and how she will (or won’t) come through.
At long last, in its final pages, the story takes on more range, more color, more moments of truth. As her body fails her and Anna ends up in a wheelchair, Tony begins to step out on his wife. He spends more and more hours at a bar, where he meets another woman and again falls irresistibly in love. He makes excuses for keeping long hours, rarely comes home when he promises, and increasingly forgets not only his wife, but also their daughter, Roseann.
Being the caregiver of an invalid partner is no doubt grueling and takes an immense toll on a person. Anna appears to forgive, even play dumb, as Tony divorces her to marry his mistress. Her care is initially taken over by other family members, but they, too, find it too much for them, and she is institutionalized. The betrayal isn’t Tony’s alone. Almost no one from the family visits Anna at the institution, where abuse escalates (the epilogue of the book explains that this institution is cited for its conditions and eventually closed).
The book draws to a climactic close as Tony visits Anna again, and the two families come head to head. If there’s a message in this story, it is to consider carefully our commitments—illness can happen to any of us, and no one deserves what happens to Anna Lauro. As cruel as some of the human behavior is in this story, the cruelest of all is the disease.
This has the potential to be a powerful and important story with several important life lessons, but the author, no doubt through her understandable desire to create in it a lasting and loving tribute to her mother, has not been able to gain the distance from the story needed to give it full rein of the complexities in human character.  One wishes a more objective editor might have helped her achieve more distance.

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