Title: Mafia Girl
Author: Deborah Blumenthal
Length: 270 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
After Gia and her best friend get pulled over for speeding, she finds herself falling for her arresting officer, Michael. The only problem? Gia is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a New York City mafia boss, which means that law enforcement is off-limits. Her feelings don’t go away, but she soon has more to worry about than a crush. Her dad’s business gets her teased and harassed at school and sometimes even puts her life–and that of her friends and family–in danger. However, when the law threatens to catch up with him at last, Gia must come to terms with how much different her life could be without her father in it.
They call me Gia. Just Gia. Even the teachers taking attendance. Never mind my last name with the operatic mouthful of syllables and vowels. Unless you need a dinner reservation in a place that’s booked, then doors open and you get comped with antipasti and fritto misto, and after the main course when you’re stuffed, Napoleons and cannoli appear when you didn’t order dessert, and then we act impressed and my dad overtips.
This book has a shockingly abysmal rating on Goodreads (2.96/5; not even books with massive hate clubs–think Twilight–have average ratings that low!), which I don’t think it deserves.
Sure, it can be a bit vapid and silly in places, and the main character, Gia, has a narrative voice that’s sometimes annoying and not always grammatically correct. I’m not saying this is a great work of literature. It’s entertainment: fast-paced (often a bit too much so), un-sugarcoated YA entertainment. There’s sex, drugs and
rock’n’roll a whole lot of Italian food. And there’s serious stuff in there, too: bullying, depression, suicide, parental abandonment, drug and alcohol addiction, money problems, and of course Gia’s ongoing dilemma of loving her father while struggling to accept that he may be responsible for some truly heinous crimes. I felt that very few of these issues are breezed over or dismissed. The narrative, by way of Gia, has to juggle them all–as well as her conflicted feelings for Michael–and uses sarcasm, shopping, and the like to cope on the side.
It all feels a little unbalanced, and Gia doesn’t always come off as likable, but it also felt realistic to me in that way. Who was a saint, or totally likable, or made all good decisions as a teenager? And along with all the standard teenage issues Gia faces, she also has to deal with cameras being shoved in her face all the time and has to worry about whether or not her house is going to be shot up by her dad’s enemies in the middle of the night.
Unlike others, I didn’t get distracted by glaring grammatical mistakes or typos. I saw one or two, maybe. Then again, unlike when those things occur books that are Serious and Acclaimed, I could’ve breezed right past the supposedly myriad mistakes because I found this book too fun and light to get hung up over small errors.
Also unlike many other readers, I loved Gia. I thought her voice–while some of Blumenthal’s stylistic choices are a bit grating from time to time–was a breath of fresh air. She has a voice, a distinctive one, unlike half of the other first-person YA heroines I’ve read about in the past few years. She’s smart, sassy, and spirited, but that doesn’t mean she has no struggles or inner conflicts–she absolutely does.
The other characters are a bit hit-or-miss, though I also loved Gia’s best friend Clive. I wish both Michael and Gia’s father had been more fleshed-out, because they each had potential to add something to the story. In fact, I wish the organized crime part of the story had been brought a bit more to the fore (hey, it’s why I picked up the book!), though I understand why it wasn’t. Mafia Girl, despite the title, is not a mafia or crime book the way The Godfather is; it’s a coming-of-age story.
As for the other complaint I’ve read, that Mafia Girl stereotypes Italian culture, maybe so. But it’s no more stereotypical than, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (I know that’s Greek, not Italian, but the point stands) or frankly, even than the much-praised film Goodfellas. And even if they were stereotypes, they were mostly harmless: for instance, Gia’s mother’s outlet is cooking, especially pasta dishes (but “she draws the line at baking”), and wears about twenty crosses “in case someone might not realize she’s a serious Catholic.”
Take this bit from Thanksgiving for example. It might have been my favorite comic sequence from the entire book:
[A]nd then the pumpkin and chocolate pecan pies and the sugar cookies and espresso and tea and then after-dinner drinks, and then Frankie drops to the floor because he has a massive heart attack.
The ambulance screeches up and the EMT guys give Frankie oxygen and it takes three of them to carry him out on a stretcher. By then everyone has switched over to speaking Italian because that way they feel closer to God and then they’re praying and throwing their hands up and everybody heads for their cars to follow the ambulance. (148-9)
This book is also, in part, a romance. It was the only part that didn’t really work for me.
I would have found Gia’s love interest Michael compelling, as I said before, if he’d had a smidge more time in the book. He feels a little two-dimensional. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of their relationship (as some people have pointed out, Gia’s underage and Michael’s a cop, after all–though it’s really no worse than Rose and Dimitri in the Vampire Academy series, one of my all-time OTPs), it felt real the same way Gia did: an over-the-top, hot and heavy, first-love-which-means-it’s-forever type of romance. If the book had been a little bit longer, it would’ve worked a little bit better for me.
Side-note: Other reviewers have condemned Gia as a “stalker” who can’t take no for an answer; I think that criticism is a little over-the-top. It never really bothered me, because to me, Gia’s pursuit of Michael reads like the actions of a naive-but-spoiled girl used to getting her own way and desperate for affection. Were some of her methods when it came to tracking Michael down and “courting” him dubious? Maybe. But then again, Gia was raised by a mafia boss. She might have a slightly skewed sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what crosses the line. Plus, as Michael is a grown man and a cop–and most importantly, is actually interested in Gia, too–so I think he can handle himself.
Gia’s relationship with her BFF Clive (who, again, I loved) is really sweet, too. And her love-hate relationship with her father is by turns touching and heartbreaking. I guess I’m a sucker for tough guys who turn to mush around their little girls, I don’t know. But the last scene between them really makes you want to cry.
I’ve talked myself into upping my rating by a half-star over the course of writing this review.
Tl;dr? Don’t believe all the bad reviews. Mafia Girl has a lot going for it: a unique, almost stream-of-consciousness style that–for the most part–sounds authentic rather than forced; a fast-paced story that doesn’t shy away from mature or serious topics or strong language; and a funny, smart-mouthed, memorable heroine with a spine made of steel. You might not love it, but don’t dismiss it before reading it because of what you think it is. (Incidentally, that’s pretty much the theme of the entire book.)
For all its flaws, it’s also infinitely better than the other YA crime family book (Hold Me Like A Breath) I read this year.