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Twists make `Queen' a lively read

You can't get closer to truth than this supposedly fictional story of Nella Castelluca, the third child in a family of five children of Italian-American immigrants. Author Adriana Trigiani, the third child in an Italian-American family of seven children, was born and spent her earliest years in the Pennsylvania town of Roseto, named after the town of Roseto Valfortore in Italy's Puglia section. She has already made an award-winning documentary on the town, which is the setting of her novel "The Queen of the Big Time." Roseto's Italian immigrant families are so tightly knit that medical scientists studying the community have famously described a "Roseto effect," in which social support -- the love and caring of relatives, friends, and neighbors -- helps reduce stress and disease.

Stress plays a part in this story, which follows Nella from childhood through death in a generation's worth of hard times, hard work, love, loss, and family. It would be a rather boring reality TV plot line were it not for the twists Trigiani infuses into it. Nella is a bright little girl who dreams of getting away from the hard farm life of her family to become a teacher. Nella wants to live in town with Pugliese immigrants who have learned more skilled trades. To make extra money for his large family, Nella's papa works part-time in a quarry, until an accident puts him out of commission. Nella has to leave school at 15 and work in a blouse factory in town. She is good at her job, and rises up the chain of command until she becomes forewoman. At this point, Nella lives in town with her older sister, who has married Alessandro in the traditional Old Country way, by arrangement.

Nella's sister, Assunta, dies in childbirth and another sister comes to take care of the baby (who is named after her mother) and Alessandro. In the meantime, Nella falls in love with Renato Lanzara, son of the town barber and a heartbreaker among Roseto's young women. He pays Nella some attention, and, in fact, she gives herself to him on the night that he's grieving his father's death. But Renato eventually writes a Dear Nella letter to our protagonist, leaving town for parts unknown.

Renato returns unexpectedly on the eve of Nella's wedding to Franco Zollerano, who has wooed her diligently since Renato's leave-taking. The big surprise, though, is that her first love has returned as the local parish priest. But this is no reinvention of "The Thorn Birds." There is no sexual dalliance between Renato and newlywed Nella. Other than the sexy priest, this is a sweet story of growing up, marrying, and dying within the framework of family, love, and community. The Queen of the Big Time refers to Roseto's annual religious festival, where townspeople choose a young woman to be queen and rule the carnival. Nella's niece Assunta is chosen and to Nella, this means the Castelluca family has finally made it in Roseto, despite being farmers.

A dutiful if not devout Catholic, Nella makes this observation about confession: "What a strange ritual this is: admitting secrets in a closet to a man who can't see you."

Trigiani, whose grandmother worked in a blouse factory and whose previous novel, "Lucia Lucia," was on the New York Times bestseller list in 2003, peppers "The Queen of the Big Time" with references to fashion and the movie stars of the '40s and '50s, which were more prominently featured in the first novel. Her prose is not earth-shaking but will make you smile and reminisce about gentler, more civil times in small-town and rural America.

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