Philadelphia: A Perpetual Punching Bag

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.

Olive Branches ThumbnailAs 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)

IndieReader 

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*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).

29 thoughts on “Philadelphia: A Perpetual Punching Bag

  1. Hi there, I’m the author of Olive Branches Don’t Grow On Trees and so sorry that my character came across as hating Philly. I’m happy you read on and discovered that she had problems with all the places in which she lived due to her background of growing up in an alcoholic household. I’ve lived and worked in Philly (as a South Street merchant) and have a true love for the place. Also, I consider the air smelling like cheese steaks a good thing:)

    Also, I appreciate your comments about some of my descriptions which I took into consideration in writing the revised edition of my novel. Please get in touch if you’d like me to email you a copy of this edition. Lastly, you might want to check out my latest novel, the sequel to Olive Branches which is entitled Discovery of an Eagle. It is told through Cosmo’s point of view and is a cross country road story that begins in Philadelphia’s University City.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It’s nice to learn more about your connection to Philly. I hope my comments in this post didn’t come across as harsh. I really liked your novel overall, and I’m very interested in reading your revised edition and the sequel. When will the revised edition be available?

        1. It doesn’t look like Amazon will let me buy the revised edition because I purchased the earlier version in April! I’ll have to get it through Smashwords. Thanks for the multiple links!

  2. I appreciate that you can be proud of your city. I find it hard to drum up positive feelings for my own home area, which does FEEL like home to me, but it’s hard to give reasons to anyone else to visit or move here (northern Illinois, far west of Chicago).
    I’ve only been to Philly once, when I spent 2 weeks at a journalism-training program at Temple back when I was fresh out of college in ’96. As I was coming from a small-town Midwest upbringing, it was a unique experience: The dorm where we stayed was surrounded by a razor-wire fence and we college grads weren’t allowed to go anywhere outside the dorms except in groups. But I did enjoy an excursion out to some of the restaurants you mentioned, and we walked along the South Street shops.
    It is interesting, though, how various places get their reputations, whether earned or unearned.

    1. I think the reasons to visit or live in Philadelphia have multiplied since 2000. With more people living in Center City, more restaurants and shops have opened (and stay open later). You probably wouldn’t even recognize Temple now (if it weren’t for the flags all over the campus!). They have so many new buildings, including new dorms. The campus is really nice. I didn’t attend Temple, but I do have a soft corner for the place. My father has been a professor there since the late 1970s. I grew up in its film department.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I wasn’t aware there was so much hating on Philly. If it makes you feel any better, I live in the middle of Illinois and have no negative connotations of the city. In fact, it just makes me think of fun touristy things and Boy Meets World. And The Fresh Prince. Dang. Now the theme song is in my head.

    1. I can’t tell you how often the Fresh Prince theme song is stuck in my head! Ha! Philly is a very fun town for tourists. Let me know if you’re ever in the area!

  4. I’ve never been to Philly, but I’d love to see it someday 🙂 Sometimes there is way too much generalization in books. Being from Boston, I cringe when I read/see representations of Boston and how wrong/off they are. It sounds like Grace’s book was filled with those cringe-worthy moments.

    1. Yes, there were lots of cringe-worthy moments (but the book redeemed itself in many ways by the end). If you’re ever in the Philly area, please let me know!

  5. I wonder if Ms Mattioli spent any real time in the city? It’s easy to get the wrong impression of anywhere on a fleeting visit. I empathise as my home city (Birmingham, England) gets a universal bad Press from London-based writers and critics in particular. There’s nothing to be done but to fight back and emphasise the many positives – as this and other Philly-based blogs do very admirably.

    1. I don’t know if Mattioli has spent much time in Philly. The city it has improved substantially since 2000 (growth in Center City, more restaurants, more shops, etc). So, I wonder if she based her stereotypes of the city on experiences she might have had in the 1990s. Who knows!

  6. When we first moved to this area (S Jersey), we were ecstatic that we could go to Philly anytime we wanted. Still love going there, especially to eat! Oh, sure, it could benefit from being cleaner or greener, but what major city couldn’t?

    1. So true! Philadelphia is a large city that has to deal with the challenges that come with being an urban environment. It’s shame when people only see these faults. Thanks for stopping by! It’s nice to hear from someone who is familiar with the city.

    1. Yes, it is definitely worth the trip! One of the things I love about your blog is how you’ve profiled some of the beautiful gardens in the Philadelphia area (a few of them I hadn’t visited until you mentioned it!).

  7. Allison

    As a non-native Philadelphian I have to say that there are good and bad parts of the city, just like any other city. When we first moved here we were amazed at how little attention and respect the city got. All the focus in the news is on NYC and to a slightly lesser extent NJ. It made the slightly antagonistic attitude we felt more understandable. At the same time we see so many things that the city could do to improve that it’s very frustrating for us, there seems to be a pervasive sense of “good enough” when it could be great. But among the many wonderful things the city offers, the history and the feeling that Philly has been here and will continue to survive regardless, are wonderful. And Philadelphia does have amazing laws regarding fair treatment of all people.

    Of course Philly is not “my” city and never will be however long I live here. But if someone wrote something similar about Chicago? I’d definitely have a hard time finding any desire to continue reading.

    1. Well put! Like most major cities, Philadelphia struggles with challenges that come with its urban environment. I just wish people wouldn’t see only the faults. I wonder whether people who have a negative opinion of Philadelphia have visited recently. So much has changed over the last two decades.

      Thanks for the comment! I really appreciate hearing from other Philadelphians.

  8. SF

    I’m interested in Jersey books (it’s another place that gets a bad reputation). So Olive Branches might be up my alley. Location molds us into who we are, and if we don’t like who we are or what our circumstances are, then we aren’t likely to appreciate the place that made us that way. I read lots of books where the main character hates where they live. It can move the plot, but it might turn readers off.

    1. I agree. Authors just have to be prepared for the fact that derogatory statements about any place will annoy some portion of their readers. I can handle criticism about my city (it certainly isn’t a perfect place!), but this was way too much! It made Silvia completely unlikeable.

  9. I get frustrated at things like that in books, too! I read a book not long ago in which the name ‘Beth’ takes a real beating and I couldn’t help but get angry. Anyway, I LOVE Philly and thoroughly enjoyed the year we spent there.

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the time you spent in Philly! I think it’s a great place, but I also recognize that not everyone agrees with me. I just wish Silvia’s criticism hadn’t been so over the top.

      As for your name, what could possibly be wrong with it?! In one of my WIPs, the main character doesn’t like her name, but it isn’t because something’s really wrong with the name. It just doesn’t fit her for certain reasons.

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