By Camille Aubray
HarperLuxe — June 2021
ISBN: 9780063090279 — Paperback — 592 pp.
Greenwich Village, New York City, the 1930s. As war breaks out in distant Europe, a wealthy family of Italian Americans with business ties to the mafia works hard to ensure their continued success for themselves, and even more for their children. Gianni and Tessa have one daughter, Petrina, and three sons, Johnny, Frankie, and Mario; partnering them each with the right spouse becomes the immediate parental priority to facilitate their continued familial prosperity. However, the fashionable and intelligent Petrina has a marriage on the rocks, and she still hasn’t fully recovered from a potential scandal in her past that threatened the family’s stability.
Considerate and responsible eldest son Johnny has married naive Amie, a young French widow from upstate New York, who he helps after she has used a gun to end her abusive marriage to a bar owner. Fiery middle son Frankie marries the equally spirited Lucy, an Irish nurse who has prior experience standing up to members of organized crime. But for quiet and cerebral Mario, the doted-upon baby boy of the family, Tessa decides that he needs a good Italian woman from the old country, a woman who has not grown up with the influences of American culture. Tessa and Gianni arrange to bring a young woman named Filomena over for marriage to Mario. Outbreak of WWII in Italy and tragedy leads another girl to seize the opportunity to secretly come in her friend’s place, adopting Filomena’s name and identity.
The bulk of the novel deals with the history of this family from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chapters set in the 1980s frame each side of this story, featuring Nicole, who is learning all these hidden secrets of her family’s past from one of the four Godmothers. Aubray follows the opening bookend with chapters that separately introduce the pasts of each of the four women, with particular focus on Filomena. By the point of Filomena’s marriage to Mario, the singular path of the woman as part of the familial is followed. Their generation takes over more business operations with the death of Gianni and Tessa.
The gradual departure or loss of the men to illness or war gradually allow the women to take leadership more fully, making use of the survival skills they have each learned from their pasts, and their keen intellect. With strengths to complement one another, and ferociously protective of each other’s secrets, these Godmothers work together to separate their lives from dependence on crime and keep their children safe.
The basic feminist story in The Godmothers is solid. It’s a story of divestment from situations they have been born or married into while maintaining loyalty to ‘blood’. Establishing social independence alongside separation from criminal business ties that leave them vulnerable and at the mercy to immoral powers that they’ve all had personal prior experience with in some way.
Aubray’s construction of the novel is less perfect. The bookends to the story set in the 1980s are unnecessary, and even detrimental. The opening sets up expectations of really dark secrets and mystery that will have big implications for Nicole. There are some dark secrets and mysteries revealed in those days of the 1930s – 1950s. But from the point of view of decades later, they are all pretty unsurprising, and hardly scandalous to warrant panic for Nicole. If framed solely as learning more about her family it may have worked better at least (even if not needed). Instead it sets the novel up to be far more of a thriller and mystery than it ever is.
The other major issue with The Godmothers is that it becomes progressively less compelling as the read continues. The first half or so was engaging, but the plot soon settles into a lull of predictability, and the character developments among the women and their relationship stagnates into repetition of themes. Coupled with an anticlimactic end to the 1950s era story of the Godmothers gaining criminal independence, the fizzling of any story on the 1980s side of the history makes the final chapters of the novel more skippable than engaging.
Though Aubray writes well – if a bit melodramatically – and crafts interesting characters with a meaningful history, the structure of the novel and a second half of smooth-sailing against any remotely rough waters ends up dampening the initial joys of reading The Godmothers. Given the numerous mentions of the novel on “Best of the year/summer” lists and many enthusiastic reader responses, there are certainly readers out there who will enjoy this and not mind structural elements I found to not work.
For those who are interested in looking into The Godmothers further, there is currently a new Goodreads Giveaway running until April 26, 2022 to win a copy of the novel.