Do you think you might scream in frustration if you encounter one more book about a previously ambitious career woman who finds her true calling darning socks in her old, Southern hometown? If so, check out The Side of the Angels, the sophomore effort from Christina Bartolomeo. Utilizing a decidedly unglamorous Yankee setting, the novel features an intelligent Italian-Irish-American heroine who isn’t about to sacrifice her job for anyone. She can hold her own with clueless bosses, obnoxious kids, creepy hangers-on, and even the former love of her life. If the novel’s romance doesn’t quite succeed, the author’s wry observations, sprinkled throughout an interesting plot, more than redeem the book.
Public relations whiz Domenica “Nicky” Malone works for a small firm that specializes in liberal causes. Nicky was practically raised on “Look For the Union Label” as her lullaby, so it’s a natural fit for her to assist a nurse’s strike in Winsack, Rhode Island. By temporarily leaving her Washington D.C. home, she’s closing the door on her ex-boyfriend Jeremy, a British charmer who wants forgiveness for his infidelity. She’s also taking a break from her cousin and best friend Louise, who pretends she’s not heartbroken that Nicky’s other cousin, Johnny, is engaged to be married. But Nicky is going from the frying pan into the fire, for the lead strike organizer is none other than Tony Boltanski, whom Nicky loved desperately but left, five years ago, when it became obvious that she would always run a distant second place to his job.
In Winsack, Nicky quickly dives into the nurses’ media campaign to sway public opinion to their side against the hospital chain that refuses to consider their demands for less overtime and better staffing ratios. It’s a difficult battle, though, made even more challenging by Tony’s nominal assistant, an obnoxious crony of the union president. In her few minutes of spare time Nicky tries to bring Louise and Johnny together before he marries his sweet but dull fiancée. But can she figure out her own heart? It might be too late, as a beautiful strike consultant is making possessive gestures towards Tony that clearly say “You had your chance, now he’s mine.” And don’t count out Jeremy, who is pulling out all of the stops - including enlisting the aid of her mother - to win Nicky back.
Bartolomeo is a former union campaign writer, and her expertise provides Angels with an authentic framework. The dynamics and strategy of the nurses’ strike are fascinating, as are the tasks and roles necessary to make it work. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie, but she doesn’t demonize the hospital. The plot is enriched by Bartolomeo’s numerous witty, perceptive comments about women, men, life and love, including this one from the novel’s first chapter:
Underneath my pessimistic surface I rooted for love just as fervently as Louise did, though with less faith. It was like being a Red Sox fan. You prayed the Sox might make the play-offs, you cheered them through every victory of the season, but history told you that they’d never win the series. Somehow it always ended with a heartbreaker in the bottom of the ninth.
You have to respect a woman who knows that the heartache of a botched baseball game is second only to the heartache of lost love. In Nicky, Bartolomeo has created a caring but sharp-tongued heroine who makes no apologies for her ambitions. She’s still looking in vain for the approval of her traditional Catholic mother, but meanwhile she’s comfortable with who she is and what she does.
Bartolomeo also has the ability to capture the essence of her secondary characters in one or two sentences, whether it’s Nicky’s sleazy boss Ron, who “would be distracted by a waterfront real estate opportunity on his way to save a drowning man,” or Suzanne, Tony’s new flame, whose gestures are “so studied that they were almost stylized, as if she’d gotten Balanchine to choreograph motions for everyday social encounters.” The only area in which the novel fails to deliver is the love story between Nicky and Tony. They spend most of their time together bickering, and Tony is portrayed as a union zealot who lacks manners, style, grace or gentleness. He’s not a bad person, just a careless one, and the reader is left with little hope that the workaholic tendencies that destroyed their first relationship won’t be just as damaging the second time around.
But for this reviewer, who has grown weary of ditzy screwball heroines and rhapsodies about the joys of small town Southern living, Side of the Angels was a breath of fresh air. I recommend it for readers who like a more mainstream, urban novel with that combines love, work and family with that elusive happy ending.