The Last One Home
by Annette Appollo
(Harper Choice, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-109721-7
****
An unusual mix of poignancy and black humor, The Last One Home should appeal to Baby Boomers who have reached the point in their lives where they spend more time looking back than looking forward. Friendship, family and the ghost of a lost romance combine together to make this a compelling novel.

Only the impending death of her Uncle Tony is enough to bring Gia Scarpino back to her small Pennsylvania hometown after more than a thirty year absence. Gia owes everything to Tony, who raised her after she was orphaned at an early age. He taught her to stand up for herself, and protected her from harsh Catholic school nuns and her three grim aunts. After he sent Gia to Italy following her high school graduation, Tony encouraged her to spread her wings and move beyond the limited opportunities of her birthplace.

But now, when the successful California divorce attorney comes home to help Tony die, she realizes she is not the only one who has changed. Her childhood best friend, Barbara, has become a depressed alcoholic. Her friend "Yozo" has become a wildly successful businessman, far exceeding anyone's expectations. And the biggest surprise of all is Father Cunningham, the parish priest -- who Gia knows better as Willie, her high school sweetheart.

Over the course of the next ten days, Gia discovers more startling secrets, resolves her feelings for Willie and struggles to fulfill Tony's irreverent last wishes. The four friends' lives are irrevocably altered by Gia's appearance as they rediscover the ties that once bound them together.

There are several standout characters in this novel. First and foremost is Gia herself. She's pushy and mouthy -- a perfect lawyer, she admits -- and frequently at odds with her traditional Italian family. She has had her share of tragedy and loss, but in her mid-fifties she's still a fighter. Tony, too, is a strong character, despite the fact that he is on his deathbed. Even in his final days he shows his love and support for Gia, and the short flashback passages that relate formative episodes of Gia's childhood illustrate how lucky she was to have a godfather who took his role so seriously. My favorite character was cheerfully lecherous and surprisingly successful Yozo, whose accomplishments can't compensate for a loveless marriage and an alienated son.

The Last One Home uses biting wit and gut-wrenching emotion to illustrate the complexities of friendship and family dynamics. A common theme throughout the novel is loyalty: how far will Gia go to honor Tony's bizarre dying request, even though it will cause anguish for the rest of his family? What does Gia owe her friend Barbara, who has fallen into such a deep pit she may never be able to crawl out? Which is stronger -- Yozo's loyalty to the wife he never loved or to the married woman who desperately needs help? And where do Willie's loyalties lie -- to his faith or to the only woman he ever loved?

The plot is saved from soap-opera melodrama by dark humor and several surprising twists, culminating in a situation where Gia is unexpectedly forced to utilize her legal skills. The ending leaves a few loose ends dangling -- or maybe I just wasn't ready to say goodbye to the characters yet.

As a debut author, Annette Appollo makes a few mistakes. A strong character like Gia deserves an equal match, but I found Willie to be disappointingly passive. And some of the novel's dialogue is a little too arch to be believable. But overall, The Last One Home is an engrossing, satisfying read.

--Susan Scribner


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