Authors: Adriana Sifakis and George Sifakis
Publisher: Evolve Publishing
Reviewed by: Ralph Peluso, Literary Editor
Zebra Rating – 5 Stripes
“Holy $**& (expletive deleted), Holy $**& (expletive deleted). Frantically zipping through the chapters, I found myself repeating these two words anxious as the plot unfolded. The repulsive antics of the primary antagonist in this captivating drama, Ma, had me in shock and awe at each twist and turn. About a quarter of the way through the book author Adriana Sifakis had contacted me, and I told her the book was “fun.” Sensing my sarcasm, she commented, “Wait it gets better.” She was right.
If you combine the most nefarious characteristics in two of the all-time novels with sociopathic mommy figures, “Mommy Dearest” (Joan Crawford) and “Flowers in the Attics” (V.C. Andrews-the grandmother), Ma Napolitano sets a new standard on the evil scale.
The narcissistic self-anointed matriarch of the family with roots in Queens believed she and everyone else in the family were happiest with her controlling all facets of their lives. The reality no one was happy, not even Ma. She simply served to make the lives of all those around her miserable. No, not miserable that is too bland, a living hell. Countless times she inflicted abusive and dispassionate mental damage ubiquitously to immediate and extended family members. Of course, she bestowed the same loving treatment on friends whom she believed were the slightest bit threatening. If you happened to have the “benefit” of being in her good graces, well then you got away easy. The prize, just walking on eggshells. God help you if you provided the slimmest of reason for her to think you were crossing her, then things really got rough.
The plot and the characters are well developed. The authors patiently pull you into the abject dysfunctionality of the Napolitano clan. Each of the components for high-quality dysfunctionality is there including the enablers, the addict, the scapegoat (or two), the martyr, and, of course, Ma as the punisher. From the outset this second generation immigrant family is in conflict, battling at times over trivial issues. Her three children are under her complete subjection from appearance, to where they live, to their friends. Ma attempts to isolate them from all social and intellectual bonds external to the family. Ma displays an abnormal level of jealousy in any situation where she is not the center of attention or does not reap the most rewards. The Napolitano family suffers through the serrated barbs of her never ending ridicule. At the drop of a hat, they faced life affecting drama and turmoil. Ma’s signature move to her guilt-laden targets: a handwritten letter the envelope marked SWAK. The hidden warning capitulates or suffer.
Having immigrant roots, I found it hard not to identify with the Napolitano’s, including those powerless to change things. I asked Adriana Sifakis about the inspiration for her characters.
“The characters are built from personal stories which were lived, including the domineering mother. I hope every reader can relate to the family, even having someone in their life as ‘coo coo’ as Ma.”
The deeper story here is the courage it takes for a victimized child to build enough intestinal fortitude to free themselves from emotional shackles. Adriana said, “Miracles can and do happen through the power of prayer and faith.” Adriana admitted her favorite character is the quiet and unassuming Lauren, who proved all doubters wrong. She possesses an indomitable spirit, becomes her own person, beating very long odds and near fatal obstacles, finally and dramatically cleansing herself from all demons.
“Everyone faces evils and troubles during their life. It is how you handle them and whether you can turn a positive into a negative which ultimately matters,” the author added.
The book also draws on Adriana’s husband’s Greek Orthodox heritage to fight off the diabolical antics of Ma. Lauren leveraged this faith, who like the author has a Greek Orthodox spouse, including the traditional baptism, which requires spitting at the devil three times to expunge evil spirits.
I am not certain you can ever fully recover or heal from the impact of a dysfunctional family.
In the end, as a consequence of Ma’s actions, the family has blown apart. The survivors, heartbreakingly, all off in separate directions, living out their lives effectively strangers. This is a sad state seen all too often in American families.
George and Adriana currently live in Arlington with their three sub-teenage children, but the couple remains strongly embedded in the fabric of Alexandria. The pair has maintained a career in politics, written a novel, launched two startups and initiated a lifestyle brand. “Live Inspire Empower,” is a movement focused on helping young women across the globe gain or restore self-confidence. Although they maintain a very hectic schedule, they have still found the time and energy for another new venture: Opening an Italian Deli soon in Old Town! I am certain they’ll take great care to blend traditional tastes and cutting edge flavors for the discerning palates! I cannot wait for the grand opening.
SWAK is a terrific page turner that will capture readers from the outset. Each of Ma’s children succumbs to abuse in different ways. The twins, one falling to the grip of addiction, the other cuts and runs from the family; Lauren methodically builds self-confidence. The grandparents are horrified by what they witness and paralyzed to do anything about it. Ma is a user. She consumes people and things, and then callously disposes of the waste when there is no longer a benefit to her. Finally her despicable impuissant spouse. His complete inability to stand up to Ma, including a stomach wrenching physical humiliation at her hands, enabled her actions.
This book will provide a great summer read. Bring a second book to the beach; you’ll get through SWAK that quickly.
P.S. – if you get a letter SWAK, mark return to sender, and relocate!