Joseph F. Berenato
Native Reitano to release first novel
Hammonton native Gail Reitano is eagerly awaiting the premiere of her debut novel, Italian Love Cake, due to be released by Bordighera Press on May 11.
The synopsis from the publisher describes Italian Love Cake as the “account of a woman thwarted in her self-expression and autonomy.”
“Marie Genovese looks out from her apartment window above the Five & Ten and wonders how she’ll save the failing store she’s inherited from her mother. In a historical moment overshadowed by fear, economic uncertainty and the controlling behavior of men, a powerful line of women—living and dead—helps Marie navigate her path to independence ... Gail Reitano sets the story in a deeply patriarchal culture, but boundaries between masculine power and feminine exaltation are blurred and frequently crossed. In this Depression-era portrait of a first-generation Italian-American woman, Marie Genovese asserts her own mind, and her sexuality, on the way to achieving her economic dreams,” it reads.
Reitano told The Gazette that she wanted to aim Italian Love Cake at “the generation of my mother’s friends.”
“I wanted to recreate if a woman at that time had more agency, I wanted to give her agency. I wanted that woman, in that kitchen in 1938. I think Italian woman have a lot of force; they have a lot of determination. I see it in all the women in my family. I wanted to show that strength, and I also wanted my main character to make choices that a woman at that time wouldn’t necessarily make. I wanted to emancipate that generation through the fiction,” Reitano said.
Reitano, 68, is a graduate of Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, as well as a graduate of Rutgers University’s Douglass Residential College. Her career path has taken her though the advertising world in New York City and through the importing world of London, where she met her husband, Nicholas Bogle, and where their daughter, Ava, was born.
It was around the time of their daughter’s birth that Reitano, who has always had a passion for writing, began to seriously take up the craft.
“I started writing, and went to the University of London for some courses. We decided to move to California because my husband was a model maker; he had his own model-making company in London. I wanted to come back because I was writing, and I just wanted to be in America again. I’d been away for 12 years. I’d come back every year to visit my parents and do things, but I wanted to move back,” Reitano said.
Reitano and her family settled in a small village near San Francisco, where she has worked as a consultant, mainly in affordable housing. However, Reitano said she was “just itching to quit it and write.”
“Finally, my husband said, ‘OK, you can do that.’ We talked about it, and for the last three years I’ve been just writing,” Reitano said.
Reitano said that she had previously worked on a novel dealing with the ecology of the Pine Barrens, but she has “always wanted to write about Italians.”
“I wanted to write about my people. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Hammonton. I’m so marked by that town, and I have great warm feelings for the town, but I guess everyone feels like that about home. I think, because I moved away. Where we were raised was so exquisitely beautiful on the lake; it was this idyllic surrounding in nature that was so incredible. That lives with me, that property. It’s an important part of me,” Reitano said.
Reitano said the property in question was called The Harbor—also known as the Slape mansion—in the 900 block of Central Avenue, owned at the time by her uncle, Lewis Colasurdo.
“My parents built their house there; I was raised there. When my aunt and uncle, after they were both gone, my sisters and I couldn’t afford to keep the property, because we were all living afar—I’ve got a sister in France, I have one in California, I’m in California and I think I was in London at the time—there was no way we could keep the property,” Reitano said.
One of Reitano’s clearest memories of the property involved massive trees on the property, which were removed once The Harbor was sold.
“My uncle had these trees, and my father had tended these trees; tree surgeons came in to save that giant oak. They just clear-cut it. They pulled out all these ancient, enormous rhododendrons that were so beautiful. My sisters and I used to play house in them; it was our mansion under these rhododendron bushes,” Reitano said.
Reitano also credits her appreciation for other cultures to her time packing blueberries at her grandfather’s farm on Columbia Road.
“Packing blueberries on my grandfather’s farm was such a great window into a different world. It was amazing. The pickers would come down from Philadelphia; they were all Black, and we were Italian-Americans, and my grandmother could speak some Spanish with the Spanish-speakers. It was the first mixture of people in my young life,” she said.
Reitano said that she and her mother visited the old farm five years ago—now Big Buck Farms—and was relieved to see how much had stayed the same.
“It was incredible to see that it was an organic blueberry farm. I looked it up, and read about them and met the women. It was great to see the farm again, and the only shade tree on the entire farm, ever, was still there, and really enormous. They didn’t cut it down,” she said.
That element of timeless and familiarity factors into Italian Love Cake, which Reitano is influenced heavily by Hammonton.
“I wanted to do it pre-war time, because I wanted to deal with the Depression, and Fascism, Italian-American Fascism, and I wanted to be in a town like our town. My fictional town of Littlefield has many elements of Hammonton, and it takes place largely on the main street of the fictional town. It’s not Hammonton, and the people aren’t specific people, but it’s drawn from everything I experienced,” Reitano said.
The book’s title also has roots in Hammonton. Reitano said that Italian Love Cake came directly from Anna Le Coney’s recipe in the St. Joseph’s Holiday Cookbook put out by the St. Joseph’s Altar Rosary Society while her grandaunt Mary Kryvoruka was president in 2001, and which Reitano purchased during the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
“I was going through it for recipes, because looking at the recipes I felt frozen in time; it could have been the ‘20s, ‘30s,’40s, ‘50s. I found Italian Love Cake and thought, what a great title. It’s not a cake everybody knows; it’s not like you’re calling a book ‘apple pie.’ It became the working title, and thought that I could go anywhere with it,” Reitano said.
Reitano said that the recipe name completely captured her imagination.
“It sounded romantic. It sounded delicious. The thing about it that I loved—a little bit of magical realism—the cake, the ricotta and the cake batter, switched places in the oven as the cake baked. I thought I could play with that metaphor, and that’s in the book in one tiny scene. The whole thing seemed rich with possibilities,” Reitano said.
Italian Love Cake is available for pre-order, both from Bordighera Press and through Barnes and Noble. For more information, visit gailreitano.com.