It is the seventies, the era of Free Love and Let It All Hang Out, and Nicholas Battaglia wants to- in the worst way. He is the first one from his extended blue-collar family to escape from his hometown outside Boston and the family laundromat to go away to college. But Fordham isn’t Berkeley (it isn’t even really New York, it’s the Bronx), and Nicholas is acutely aware that his college experience feels closer to the dances at the Sons of Italy Hall than the fantasies he had of Ivy League football rallies. And all the time he is aware of and influenced by being the focus of his proud but nervous family: he should do well, but not inexplicably well; he should enjoy himself, but not too much.
A family crisis forces him to drop out for a while, and by the time he returns to school he is ready to Live Life. The vehicle for his rebellion presents itself in the form of Cynthia Branner- older, married, Jewish, his instructor- a woman whose self-destructive neuroticism is a match for his innocence and self-absorption. Their affair is like two full length mirrors reflecting in opposite directions.
One of the great pleasures of this novel is Anthony Giardina’s great affection for his characters, foibles and all. He brings them so vividly to life that readers must feel they have met Aunt Rose and Uncle Al and have joined them at the Christmas dinner where they throw themselves into the role of “the guests”; Uncle Billy, the lounge singer, who takes Nicholas out on the town to the Six Brothers Coffee Shop and cites Shakespeare, “You know, ‘Whither is the rose…’”
And there is Nick’s roommate, Tommy, who does manage to break free, spectacularly (but that is to be expected of a guy who brings girls home and then leaves the bedroom door open) and his father, whose inability to understand his son seems to be in direct proportion to the number of garish images of Jesus adorning his widower’s room.
Anthony Giardina’s first novel, Men with Debts, was called “lovely and arresting, “ambitious and original”, and “both a moving study of character and a finely realized picture of a time.” A Boy’s Pretensions more than fulfills that earlier book’s promise.