Gail Reitano’s first novel, Italian Love Cake, hit the shelves this month. Set on the eve of World War II, the novel features a young, second-generation Italian-American woman making her own way as a shopkeeper and baker in rural New Jersey. The narrative is political, delving into the growing divisions of a society preparing for war. Despite the increasingly dire circumstances, the plotline is driven by a fearless, hopeful and free-spirited lead character, Marie Genovese. Rejecting the patriarchal pressures of her reality, Marie claims her independence at every turn.
The character draws inspiration from Ms. Reitano’s own grandmother, and from her hometown. Ms. Reitano has lived in Bolinas for many years and has served a variety of local roles, including as the executive director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust before turning to writing five years ago. She sat down with the Light to talk about her new novel, which was released last week and is available at Point Reyes Books.
Light: What compelled you to start writing?
Reitano: While I was working for any paid job, I would wake in the middle of the night and write. An idea would come to me and I would have to get up and do it because I couldn’t sleep. That sounds so romantic—I was tortured by it, and I knew it was pressing in on me.
Five years ago, when this book occurred, I was doing a consulting job and I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would start writing this book. The first draft came out quite fast that way. And that’s when I knew it was a viable idea. And it felt great, a year later, when my husband and I decided I was going to dedicate myself to it. It felt amazing.
The community here—the Mesa Refuge, Point Reyes Books, the local libraries and all these heavy-hitting writers living here and in the Bay Area—it’s such a locus for writing talent and writing help. And I had valuable mentorships.
Light: What was your inspiration for the novel?
Reitano: I wanted to recreate the life of my grandmother and her mother. I wanted to reinstate their agency. I wanted to recreate them as the feminists that they were, despite being so limited by the times and their circumstances.
My maternal grandmother was an amazing woman, and she could do everything: She could refinish furniture, she could make clothes—really great clothes, like Chanel suits and fancy tailoring. Her husband was a farmer. She could do anything. A memory I have of her is arriving at her farmhouse one day with Mom, and she was killing a snake that was doing damage in the garden; she had her shovel out. She was just amazing. She was this Barbara Stanwyk kind of figure. She was an inspiration for me.
I also wanted to discover Italy. I wanted to show how Italy was missing for that generation, the first generation here, which was my grandmother’s generation. They were curious about Italy and Italy was their background and their ancestry, but they didn’t know anything about it. Or what they knew about it they were rejecting in the fever to become Americans. And this is such a common topic now in so many of the books that are out: the female wanting to discover what the ancestors knew, and what their lives were like. So much of women’s history is lost, anyway. I wanted to recreate that, too.
Light: Tell me about the setting of the novel.
Reitano: It’s a fictional town, but it’s based heavily on Hammonton, New Jersey, my hometown. That’s the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens, which is equidistant between Atlantic City and Philadelphia. It was one of these Jersey towns that is really not near anything. It’s very rural, it’s very flat, and the Pine Barrens is a 1.1-million-acre pine forest. It’s a special, protected area, and of course it’s under siege by pipelines and bad politics.
The town is pretty interesting. At least when I grew up it was half Anglo-Saxon, or what some Italians would call Yankees or Amerigani, and then it was the Italians. There were these two groups; now, of course, there are a lot more groups, because we have migrant farm labor. There’s a lot of farming. It’s the blueberry capital of the world, named of course by the biggest blueberry farmer there. Sociologically, the town is very interesting and that was definitely an inspiration.
I chose to write about the town, and the main street, though my experience was more on the farms. Half my family were businesspeople, and half were farmers. So there was both for me. I’m so interested in small town America and how it arranges itself with its different ethnic groups.
Light: Tell me about some of the main themes in the book that readers should expect.
Reitano: I always wanted to write about my Italians and my background, but it wasn’t until the Elena Ferrante books came out that I felt that a general audience would be interested in Italy, and in Italians, and hopefully Italian-Americans. I always felt that the interest level was different for Italy versus Italian-Americans. I wanted to connect the two countries. My publisher is primarily an academic publisher, and a lot of what they talk about is drawing together Italy and the Italian-American experience. They talk about diaspora, and what that looks like for people and how the sociology arranges itself.
Once at a dinner party with Romans in Tuscany, I said I was Italian. And they burst out laughing and they said, “No you are not. You’re a Yank.” And then when I was in America, in college and then later in New York, sometimes people would say I was Italian and there was some ethnic slurs and prejudice to contend with. So I couldn’t own it anywhere. That has always annoyed me, though I guess everyone who comes to America from somewhere else is annoyed by that. That’s part of the immigrant experience. It does linger.
Light: What other themes characterize the novel?
Reitano: Feminism always. That’s always the top of my list in areas of work, for women to realize the strength that they have. It is so great that my mom is still alive; a few girlfriends she has, some of whom are in South Jersey, are calling her up and they are very excited. They really like the book. And I wanted to revive in them—even though they are older and they are dying—I wanted to recapture for them the strength that they have, whether they know it or not. It extends to the politics in southern Jersey, which is very conservative in some places and very Republican. And I wanted to draw a line between then and now in terms of dictators, violent male power, power at any cost. I really wanted to work with the themes that women are very much confronting now. I mean, it never ends. It was true for my grandmother, and it’s true for us.
Light: Tell me about Marie, your main character.
Reitano: I love Marie. I was really hoping that Marie was sympathetic. Even though she can be very sharp, she can put blinders on as she’s driving toward a goal and doesn’t notice things she should notice. She’s driven, she’s ambitious. She has a big heart and she’s a moral person, despite her affair. I love her because she is not perfect; she is a real woman. She owns her sexuality. She’s the character I wanted to write. I wanted her at the end to make a decision—or not make a decision, or leave it up to the reader, and I won’t give it away—that wasn’t taking the easiest option. I hope that came through.
Light: What do you hope for your readers, particularly your female readers, to take away?
Reitano: I want them to feel more anvnoyed over the bad behavior of so many men. I think women need to get angrier and more demanding of respect. The battle is on over whether or not we are second-class citizens, in every way—physically, our safety, our bodily freedoms and autonomy. We have second-class rights now in a lot of parts of the country. And, of course, it is not just women, it's also [racial minorities]. The fight is on. I want women to be more empowered and more vocal about what needs to happen.
Light: After writing this novel for five years, what is it like to finish the book during the pandemic?
Reitano: The book was already finished, in terms of all the scenes and all the characters, but I did those last few comb-throughs this year. I read that book probably 10 times, and the last time straight through, as much as I could, in one go. Covid made it hard, having low energy, grinding through. Having to push myself to do the final work to bring the book to a state where it could go between the covers during Covid was not easy. That was not easy.
As far as a creative time, that’s no, an emphatic no. I would write my two sentences in my happiness journal every night and that was about all I could manage. That’s just starting to change, and it feels really good to write.