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If you’re looking for a singular category for Annie Rachele Lanzillotto’s memoir L Is For Lion, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose just one. This sprawling narrative could be called an Italian memoir, a Bronx memoir, a cancer memoir, a veteran father memoir, a 1960s childhood memoir, a mother-daughter memoir, or a lesbian memoir. In an ambitious display of storytelling, Lanzillotto’s charming collection of vignettes encompasses all of these identities at once.
L is For Lion begins with Lanzillotto’s busy childhood, first in the tight knit Italian neighborhood of the Bronx, and later with her single mother in Yonkers, away from her abusive yet magnetic father. Lanzillotto’s memories of her childhood are precise; she nails the joy of being allowed to play out on the street, and recounts the eerie bedtime stories her father shared about his time in the war. Each vignette is a free-flowing, generous memory, and one memory spills into the next. The writing is heavy with dialogue, but what else except true voice could capture the richness of one’s Italian family in the 1960s, when the world was ripe with change? Lanzillotto’s own voice is undeniably charming. When the nun at the front of her Kindergarten class asks Lanzillotto to count, the words that tumble out of her young mouth are the card counting vocabulary her father has taught her: “Ace deuce tree fo’ fi’ six seven eight nine ten Jack Queen King.” It’s the perfect anecdote to illustrate little Lanzillotto’s world.
Just as the world seems to widen with an acceptance to Brown, Lanzillotto finds a weird lump on her neck — a boardwalk artist at the Jersey Shore actually calls attention to it in a portrait Lanzillotto has painted for her mother. Her freshman year at Brown is interrupted by a long fall down the rabbit hole which is cancer treatment — chemotherapy, elective surgeries, and self-administered “chemo-to-go” — all told in Lonzillotto’s straightforward voice, free of any self-pity or sentimentality. The choppy string of vignettes slows into long stories about her cancer treatments, becoming the thickest part of the memoir. Yet every person who joins Lanzillotto at this time, from hospital roommate to nurse to surgeon, gets the same treatment the loving characters of her big family get: sharp detail and generous spirit. The wonder of a spunky girl making her way from working class to Ivy League quickly becomes the harrowing tale of a young person ravaged by Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Lanzillotto and her family triumph over the cancer, though, and the narrative jumps from adventure to adventure: a study abroad in Egypt, a trip to Italy to meet her mother and grandmother’s relatives, landing in the heyday of downtown New York in the early 90s as a poet and performance artist.
Lanzillotto’s own coming out process is a mere subplot to her family and her battle with cancer. A few early romantic encounters with women leave Lanzillotto confused, her Catholic faith muddying any pleasure romance with women may provide. Reflective moments around her gender identity and sexuality are sadly rushed, such as her observation post stomach-scarring surgery that “the femme was cut out of me.” Eventually Lanzillotto finds the necessary freedom to love women and herself. Before leaving for Egypt, she buys a mustache for herself, and a friend makes her a “penis doll” to wear. On her first night sampling these new possessions before her trip, she kisses Jade, who introduces her to true sex and partnership.
From here the story swings back towards her maternal lineage, sharing tales of her GranmaRose and mother, as Lanzillotto struggles to learn the most about her own heritage from their stories. There are plenty of touching scenes, including Lanzillotto bringing GranmaRose to the Italian market in the Bronx as part of a performance arts installation. For every sweet anecdote, though, readers may crave a larger narrative arc for Lanzillotto’s memoir. Any singular lens — an outsider’s search for identity, a daughter’s desire to understand her mother’s choices — could provide this winding memoir with grounding structure. Vivian Gornick posits that memoir requires a situation and a story. Lanzillotto’s situations are remarkable, but the compelling, connective story never fully materializes. Still, the vignettes are compulsively readable. L is For Lion comes across like a bright, entertaining friend who tells the best stories — the kind you never forget.
L is for Lion
By Annie Rachele Lanzilloto
Hardcover, 9781438445250, 349 pp.