Salvatore Scibona's debut novel, "The End," is set in an exquisitely rendered Italian immigrant community in early 20th century Ohio and does not open up so much as catch and slowly reel in. It opens on Assumption Day, 1953; baker Rocco LaGrassa, "a soul liberated from worry by luck and self-conquest," learns his son has died in Korea. He denies the death, insisting that the young man will return home soon, but his rigorous self-deception loosens his carefully held discipline. For the first time in years, Rocco's solitary routine is disturbed.
Rocco accepts an invitation to dine that same night with an aloof neighbor, Mrs. Marini, and it is through her that the story begins to swirl toward its vortex as it veers across time. Widowed and elderly, Mrs. Marini is helped out around the house by Ciccio, a teenage boy.
The episodic narrative cycles back in time, bringing alive the relationships that connect Mrs. Marini to Ciccio: She is friends with his grandmother Patrizia, she has been a mentor of sorts to his mother, Lina. These ties connect to men too: Umberto, Patrizia's husband, and Lina's husband, Enzo, for whom Mrs. Marini develops a genuine fondness.
Mrs. Marini's affections are hard to come by; having outlived her husband by decades, she maintains a vicious inner dialogue with his imagined, constantly critical ghost; her harsh judgments of others are kind by comparison. But as central as she is, and as difficult, Costanza Marini is not the story's antagonist: That comes in the form of a stranger who appears in two chapters titled "The Forest Runner."