On my way home to Philadelphia from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the book I was reading has ties to my hometown. Grace Mattioli’s Olive Branches Don’t Grow on Trees features 23-year-old Silvia Greco, a South Jersey native who has lived and worked in Philly. Unfortunately, though, Silvia doesn’t like my city much:
- “…[T]here was a scanty choice of men in Philadelphia. This lack of selection brought her to her next regret, which was moving to Philadelphia.”
- “As she got into the downtown, the smell of cheese steaks, that permeated the air in south Philly, changed into a less distinct flavor of urban stench.”
- “… [it’s effing] filthy. It smells like piss and garbage everywhere. It’s provincial. And has a high crime rate. And well, it’s just gross.”
Philadelphia certainly has its faults–no place is perfect for everyone–but Silvia’s criticism is a bit over the top. Plus, she didn’t even have the decency to call our “downtown” by its proper name: Center City!
This isn’t the first time I’ve read a book in which a fictional character criticizes Philadelphia, which has taken its fair share of punches from many real life individuals and publications. For example, echoing Silvia’s sentiments, Travel and Leisure’s polls almost always place Philadelphia near the bottom for such categories as cleanliness and so-called attractiveness. Meanwhile, in the Travel and Leisure polls, we’re at the top in other categories, such as ones related to our culture and our food (HOAGIES!).
There are many reasons to love this city, where I was born and where I returned to live and work after law school. As I’ve written before:
[Philly] is a manageable large city that has a small town feel. It has a walkable downtown (we call it Center City), many charming neighborhoods, and all the benefits associated with 300 years of history, world-class museums, fabulous restaurants, public transportation, parks, and close proximity to both mountains and beaches (we say we’re “going down the shore”).
I also consider among Philadelphia’s many virtues its ethnic and cultural diversity and the rights residents and workers in Philadelphia receive through such laws as the Fair Practices Ordinance.*
But Silvia doesn’t see Philadelphia’s positive features, and, at least initially, her annoyingly derisive attitude toward my city made it difficult for me to see any reason to continue reading Olive Branches Don’t Grow on Trees.
It may be controversial in literary circles to prefer books with likeable characters, but I have no qualms about it. I know enough unlikeable people in real life; I read fiction to escape them.
So, Silvia’s harsh words about Philadelphia made me dislike her instantly. I only gave her a second chance when I had exhausted my other reading possibilities while stuck on the tarmac in Mobile, AL on my way to Atlanta, GA, the last stop before home.
As it turns out, Silvia hates every place she’s ever been. This attitude is a symptom of an underlying problem tied to her turbulent family life and the dismal economy that has left her with few ways of sustaining herself while expressing her artistic talents. As I got to know Silvia better, I started to root for her, hoping she would ultimately succeed in reuniting her family and in finding a place to call home. In the end, Olive Branches Don’t Grow on Trees is a fairly touching portrait of a realistic South Jersey family.
While I am glad I gave this indie novel a second chance, I must admit that there were a few times when the author’s writing either confused me — such as when she described the father as looking like an “aged version of the young Marlon Brando” (why not just an old Marlon Brando?) — or when it felt too heavy on slow-moving narration and too light on faster-paced dialogue and action. Plus, while Silvia feels like a genuine 23 or 24-year-old artist from South Jersey, her toddler niece, Isabella, seems much, much younger than her suggested age considering the description of her verbal and nonverbal cognitive development (assuming she is on a typical development curve).
Some of these imperfections, though, actually added to the authentic feel of the book. For example, Silvia’s repetitive, jumbled thoughts are appropriate for an aimless young adult in her circumstances, even if there were times I wished Silvia (and the narration) would just cut to the chase a little faster. No story is perfect, and at $1.99, I got more than what I paid for in terms of thoughtful entertainment. The only unforgivable flaw in this novel is Silvia’s unrepentant hostility toward my city! ;)
Check Out These Other Reviews of Olive Branches Don’t Grow On Trees:
Jersey Girl Book Reviews (plus an interview with the author)
*In many places in this country, residents and workers don’t have as many legal rights as they would have in Philly (such as pregnant workers’ rights to reasonable accommodations in the workplace and domestic partnership rights).