Today I am welcoming Mary Simonsen, author of Searching for Pemberley (Sourcebooks Landmark 2009) and a delightful little book about an Italian-American community in the 1980’s, The Second Date. Coming from an Italian-American heritage myself, I found The Second Date to be like a good antipasto: colorful, flavorful, and full of tantalizing little nuggets that aren’t too filling.

Book Description (from the back cover):

Sonia Amundsen looks like a Nordic goddess on the outside, but her heart, soul, and stomach are all Italian. She is also a successful professional who is about to celebrate her 30th birthday. Although friends have been setting her up on blind dates for two years, she never goes out on a second date with any of them because she is still looking for that perfect guy. She has very specific criteria about Mr. Right, and Sonia is beginning to think that such a man is not out there. Set in the late 1980s, Sonia is surrounded by an extended Italian family, a caring, but over-bearing mother, warring aunts who use family funerals to stage full-blown tragedies, and a close friend, whose main goals in life are to get pregnant and to help Sonia find true love. The Second Date explores friendship and love in the heart of the Italian-American community where food is second in importance only to love.

Mary, how did you come to write a novel about an Italian-American with a Norwegian name who struggles to find true love?

I grew up in the 1960s in northern New Jersey, where most of my friends were Italian. I’ve lived in Arizona for 14 years, and although I do love it here, there is a dearth of Italians in the area (although there are lots of Scandinavians from the Midwest). Three years ago, I became nostalgic for good New York pizza, North Jersey accents, and people who express their emotions with their hands. The Norwegian character was just a way of contrasting my staid Irish background with the much more interesting lives of my friends.

You’re not Italian-American, but I am – so I know you’ve hit the nail on the head with these characterizations. How did you know all this stuff?

As I said, most of my friends were Italian, but it was the boy (let’s call him Tony) that I dated all through high school that brought me into the world of Italian-Americans. Tony’s mother was a first-generation American, and his grandparents were Sicilian peasants. With his family, I had my first bite of lasagna, drank anise (needed a fire extinguisher), and went to Italian weddings where the guests danced the tarantella, the bride had a silk purse to collect money for the cash dance, and Dean Martin and Tony Bennet records played in the background. The families of many of my friends belonged to the Italian-American Club, and they had a terrific festival on the feast of San Gennaro every September.

Also, Tony’s mother had a running feud with her two sisters, Ro-Ro and Wee-Wee (not making this up), and they could really get into it. (They would serve as models for my characters of Gina and Angie.) As a result, I greatly expanded my knowledge of Italian, although I couldn’t actually use the words I learned.

How many of the anecdotes in this novel are based on real events? Which one is the most outrageous (and still true)?

I witnessed almost everything in this book. Granted, events are exaggerated, but not by much. As for the real, completely true, incident, I had a friend who dated a boy of German descent for three years, but Angela’s mother wanted her to date a good Italian boy. For those three years, the poor guy was never invited to dinner. In fact, he barely made it past the plastic runner inside the front door. When her boyfriend went into the Army and was stationed in Colorado, Angela went to Fort Carson and got married. Her mother mailed her the handkerchief that she cried into when she got Angela’s telegram. That’s a true story.

Do you think these quirky details (plastic slipcovers on the furniture, cash dances at weddings, whacking kids with wooden spoons) are uniquely Italian – or are they typical of a lot of European-heritage families?

In addition to my Italian friends, I had lots of Jewish friends, and they were real big on plastic, and not just on the furniture or lamps. There were plastic runners everywhere. My only experience with cash dances were at Italian weddings, but my mother was pretty good at whacking. However, her weapon of choice was a spatula that she used to flip eggs with. She was also pretty deadly with her moccasins.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about The Second Date?

I’d like to think that The Second Date is the type of book you read when you want to shut out all the problems of the real world. There are trials and tribulations, but you are guaranteed a happy ending. It’s a book about love: love of parents, siblings, husbands, boyfriends, friends, and it has a sense of place and history. Reading The Second Date is like putting on a snuggie on a cold winter’s day.

Thank you, Dianne, for having me. Salute!

Mary is giving away a signed copy of The Second Date to one lucky winner. Leave a comment on this post by Monday, July 5th to enter. (Lighting a candle and visiting your mother — have you called her lately? — will probably increase your chances of winning.)

You can also find Mary in the blogosphere at Austen Inspired Fan Fiction.