“Love does not protect you. It exposes you.” And Small Mercies is, at heart, a love story. It is the jagged tale of a son, Bobby Amendola, a firefighter lost on 9/11. Nearly a decade later, his family still grieves. Bobby
is always in their thoughts, be it his mother, Gail, his wife, Tina, his father, Michael, or brothers Peter and Franky. As the eighth birthday of Bobby’s young son, Bobby, Jr., approaches, a planned family party will bring all these characters together, each approaching the day with mixed feelings about changes afoot in the family dynamic. The birthday is made more poignant, though less significant than Bobby’s death, by Joyce’s superb rendering of familial ties, stresses, and unmet expectations. Small Mercies is, as well, a paean to Staten Island, its unique identity and power to tie the Amendolas to one another and to their home in the larger shadow of New York City and the now-vanished towers.
The author perfectly captures the emotional tenor of a community thrown off its axis, stunned to muteness after an event that leaves the world in shock.
The families of the lost are forever burdened with unanswered questions and a seething rage that must be managed if the survivors are to move forward. What other parts of the country now view from a distance is lived daily in this landscape, the constant reminders of someone suddenly gone, the challenge of renewing routines, raising children, finding love again. Joyce illustrates the heartbreaking struggles, less than successful for some, in Bobby’s father and brothers, but the real psychological context is found in the women: Tina, whose life was wound tightly around her husband; and his mother, Gail, who excoriates herself for perceived failures with her sons, these men who have not made peace with Bobby’s death or their own personal deficiencies. And now that Tina has, after all these years, finally met a man to make her happy, everything will change.
Each personal chapter reveals a part of the whole, the identity of an Irish-Italian family in Staten Island in the throes of yet another change as time moves on. The years peel away in layers as Tina confides in Gail that she will be bringing her new man, Wade, to Bobby’s birthday party next Sunday. As Gail imagines how she might break the news to her husband and sons, she remembers early married life with Michael, the hours spent with her old country Italian mother-in-law, Maria, who speaks little English but comforts the first-time mother-to-be and teaches her the loving language of cooking, the wisdom imparted as they work together: “The news of the world passes between women in kitchens.” Gail thinks she might have shared these things with Tina, but Tina is busy navigating the treacherous waters of her complicated love for Bobby and the fear and excitement of forging a new partnership.
In contrast to the women, Joyce’s male characters are more entrenched in their emotional positions, experiencing more difficulties in facing life’s disappointments and their own particular failures.
Each is made more by Bobby’s presence in the world, now painfully vulnerable, unable to readily change entrenched behaviors that have delivered each to private demons. They are men without a language for this loss: Michael, whose youngest son has followed him into the life of a firefighter; the oldest, Peter, a successful Manhattan attorney who has jeopardized both family and career in pursuit of an obsession; and Franky, who has still not found a direction in an overwhelming world, burying his rage and grief in an ocean of alcohol, a downward spiral poisoned by self-pity. It is a distinctly American family, cast into the spotlight by a national tragedy, coming to terms with inevitability and the passage of time. This novel is the essence of the American spirit as experienced by a Staten Island family, with all its exuberance, excesses, urgencies and embrace of forgiveness when nothing else is possible.