Feed on

Note:  Author Lily King is WINNER of the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, WINNER of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and twice WINNER of the New England Book Award for Fiction.

“I have never understood why a person who is not a genius bothers with art.  What’s the point?  You’ll never have the satisfaction of having created something indispensable.  You’ve got your little scenes, your pretty images, but that desperate exhilaration of blowing past all the fixed boundaries of art, of life – that will forever elude you.” – from “The Man at the Door.”

coverAuthor Lily King, a widely honored author of novels, has just published her first collection of stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter, and what a collection it is.  Filled with references to famous writers and their writing, the collection also features the writing of her own characters, such as a young teen writing diary entries and imagining life events, and a young mother trying to find time to examine life and write while taking care of a toddler. Throughout, King herself conveys the urgency of creation through stories so intense and so genuine that this book makes her own creations “blow past all the fixed boundaries of art – of life.”  There is an intimacy to her stories which brings them to life in new ways, whether they be stories featuring a teenage babysitter, a shy older man who begins to experience real love for the first time, an attentive mother spoiling her selfish daughter, or characters both gay and straight as they realize who they are.  Some characters here are disturbed, some are fun-loving, and at least one is a ghost, but virtually all the main characters are appealing as they deal with life’s twists and turns, and Lily King allows the reader to connect with them all.

New Bedford, MA, Whaling Museum, to which Carol took her little charges.

New Bedford, MA, Whaling Museum, to which Carol took her little charges.

Fans of the author will recognize settings, characters, and themes which sometimes dominate her novels.  Many of the settings are the homes of wealthy people, some of whom have serious problems with alcohol and the inability to understand that there is a larger world of which they are only a small part.  Parents are often absent from children.  A comfortable life inherited by children of successful parents leads some of them to take for granted the whole concept of “privilege” and to be naive to the real world. Carol, the main character of the opening story, “Creature,” is a fourteen-year-old babysitter for friends at Widow’s Point, a summer resort in southern Massachusetts, near Buzzards Bay.  For the two weeks she is there, she will have her own room in a turret in the stone mansion which the Pike family enjoys in the summer.  When she is not busy with the children, she has time to write to her friend Gina, telling real and imagined stories about the family and about her reactions to them.  Carol is especially drawn to Hugh, a young man married less than a year ago and visiting his family while Carol is there.  Hugh’s wife, whom the family calls “Molly Bloom,” from Ulysses, soon reveals that she is unsatisfied in her brief marriage and wants to end it.  Later, When Hugh reads some of Carol’s private writings, in which she imagines making love with Hugh, the whole babysitting experience changes.

Club tennis players wearing required "whites" as they play.

Club tennis players wearing required “whites” as they play.

“When in the Dordogne,” is unique, in that the main character is a teenage boy, about to enter ninth grade, whose parents are going to be gone for the summer while the father recovers from a nervous breakdown and alcoholism.  The family hires two male high school sophomores to house-sit and take care of their “martini baby” son, conceived when the father was fifty-one and mother aged forty-seven.  The boy-guardians are busy, as both have part-time jobs, in addition to being a companion for the speaker.  The action turns on the fact that these boys, Grant and Ed, are hard-working boys from hard-working families, taking care of the young teen child of a wealthy family who is naive about the real world.  This boy has belonged to a private club for his whole life and has attended private schools, but his companions have not.  They don’t understand the rule requiring white dress on the private tennis courts.  In addition, they have always played basketball in public parks, a very different game.  All this, and a growing friendship with a local girl, a counselor at a nearby camp,  become part of the action in this sensitive story in which the young teen grows emotionally over the summer and comes to understand some of the elements of true friendship.

"Martini and Books," a painting by Delilah Smith. Click for more information.

“Martini and Books,” a painting by Delilah Smith. Click for more information.

“The Man at the Door” focuses on a young mother who has written three books, all of them still private and never submitted for publication because she believes that they are not good enough.  She has not written anything lately, but suddenly on this day, she writes a sentence that she likes, and without warning, other sentences begin to come to her in its wake.  She is interrupted in her writing when someone comes to the door, claiming to work for a publishing house.  He wants to talk with her about her novel, a book that is still in her notebook in the kitchen.  Before he does, however, he wants a gin martini.  Confused because no one else knows about her book project, the woman becomes even more confused when she notices that the copyright date of her book is two years hence. Ignoring her objections, the man uses his red pen on virtually everything in the book.  The man is insulting about female writers, referring to their books as “fairy tales written by hound-faced spinsters who never got asked to dance.”  Throughout the visit, which she seems helpless to end, even as the markups on her manuscripts become more and more difficult to read, her uninvited critic continues to drink, until the mother/writer has had enough and acts.

Author Lily King

Author Lily King

For those who enjoy books which reveal an author’s thoughts and attitudes toward her own writing, this collection is a gem.  Fun to read, thoughtful without being ponderous, and filled with contrasts between social groups and the stifling attitudes which often prevail within them, Lily King has created a gem.  More daring with some of its depictions of physical love than what is found in the average novel, this collection gives further proof that Lily King is in charge of her writing and her characters and that she has gained, without question, “the satisfaction of having created something indispensable….[achieving] that desperate exhilaration of blowing past all fixed boundaries of art, of life.”

Photos.  The photo of the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA, appears on https://en.tripadvisor.com

The club tennis players are from https://www.masterfile.com

More information on Deilah Smith’s painting of “Martini and Books,” may be found on https://pixels.com

Lily King’s photo appears on https://www.byrneholics.com


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-Age, Literary, Short Stories, United States, US Regional
Written by: Lily King
Published by: Grove Press
Date Published: 11/09/2021
ISBN: 978-0802158765
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  In the past ten years alone, author Louise Erdrich has been WINNER of the Pulitzer Prize, WINNER of the National Book Critics Circle Award, WINNER of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and WINNER of the National Book Award for Fiction,

“When you are haunted, there are no rules.  There is no science.  You have to do things by instinct because nobody knows how to vanquish a ghost.  Most ghost narratives explain away supernatural entities as emotional projections.  But Flora had nothing to do with my unconscious.  She had ordered me to let her win and was taking me over—penmanship first.”

cover the sentenceI have never thought of Louise Erdrich as a particularly humorous author, but the opening chapter of this novel, “Time In Time Out,” had me chuckling nonstop at the wry humor and irony for all thirty pages.  Tookie, the narrator, wastes no time introducing herself, explaining in the opening sentence that “While in prison, I received a dictionary.  It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island,” a book she had received from a former teacher.  Tookie, released from prison in her thirties, “still parties, drinking and drugging like I [am] seventeen,” and she admits that she does not yet know who she is.  Not beautiful on the outside, she admits to not being beautiful on the inside, either, confessing that she enjoys lying and selling people useless things for prices they can’t afford.”  Her past crime occurred when Budgie, the husband of her friend Mara, died suddenly, and both Mara and another friend, Danae, who was also in love with Budgie, were determined to claim his body to give it a “proper” burial.  Each one was also determined that she and she alone would be recognized as the true love of Budgie.  As it happened, one of them had just been a big winner at the casino, and she offered Tookie the entire amount of the win if Tookie would steal the body and bring it to her. When she did this, however, Tookie was arrested by a tribal policeman for a serious federal crime involving the body, and she was eventually sentenced to sixty years in prison, later reduced to seven years served. Even with all these horrors, most readers will still be smiling.

Birch Bark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, features in this book.

Birch Bark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, features in this book.

What follows is a story of Native American characters with long histories in Minnesota, dealing with legal and cultural issues with historical roots.  Author Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Chippewa tribe, has not only observed history but has lived through it, and her insights into critical events of the past two years in Minnesota, especially, are part of this novel, with Tookie the person who comes to life through them.  Tookie’s release from prison in 2005, left her in great need of a job, but her only real qualification was that she had read virtually everything in the prison library – every one of the Great Books, and even pop and graphic novels.  It is not until she eventually talks to “Louise,” the bookshop’s owner, that she is able to get a job in this “dark time for little bookstores.”  (Author Louise Erdrich owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, and  the implications here are obvious.) It is through this job that Tookie first meets Flora, an older white woman who claims that she has Native roots for which she is still doing research, a common claim by white people who long for the history which accompanies true Native ancestry.

The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe,. NM, is where Hetta has attended school.

The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe,. NM, is where Hetta has attended school, briefly.

Flora dies in her sleep shortly after their meeting, however, and when Flora’s daughter Kateri donates to the bookshop the ancient tome of Native history that Flora was reading at the time of her death, her association with Tookie and the bookshop are made irrevocable.  The book, The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862 – 1883, details the Dakota War of 1862, its sorrows, and its aftereffects, and it gives Flora a place to “live” at night. As the characters and their unusual stories begin to develop, their extended families and friends also gain interest.  Flora, before her ghost life, fostered native runaways and raised money for a Native women’s refuge. Pollux, Tookie’s husband, is the former policeman who originally arrested her for stealing a body and sending her to jail.  He now works as a woodworker and is her loving husband.  His niece/adopted daughter, Hetta, has left school at the Institute for Native American Arts, after privately making a pornograpic movie for which she is ashamed.  Her baby son, Jarvis, however, has become the light of everyone’s life.

Haskell Indian Nations University, where Louise is giving readings when Covid becomes an issue.

Haskell Indian Nations University, where Louise is giving readings when Covid becomes an issue.

Then Covid strikes, affecting everyone.  Louise is doing readings at the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, even though her bookstore at home in Minneapolis may have to be closed because of Covid, when she gets messages to return home.  Friends and family there feel that “death is in the air.”  She returns, and things seem to be going downhill, with some residents and friends returning to drinking and bad habits that they had overcome.  The saving grace, however, seems to be that books are part of their lives, and references to books, authors, and perfect novels are named throughout the narrative, even as Louise becomes despondent at her store’s expected closing.  She succeeds, however, in gaining “essential worker” status for her employees, and it remains open.  Sadly, and independently, Tookie begins to fear the ghost of Flora even more, as she is unable to free herself  from Flora’s influence, and Flora has become violent, trying to get inside her body.

The George Floyd killing leads to riots and civil unrest in Milwaukee.

The George Floyd killing leads to riots and civil unrest in Milwaukee.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis a few months later leads many of the characters and their friends to identify with the black demonstrators against the police, whom they regard as behaving like military enforcers.  Buildings burn, people are beaten, and giant armored Humvees control the streets.  There are “pockets of peace,” however. There is about an acre of full grocery bags behind a church to be distributed, people continue planting gardens, and people are painting vibrant paintings on the boarded up windows of stores.  And they were frantic at the bookstore.  “Everyone who wasn’t out on the streets wanted to read about why everyone else was out on the streets.  Orders kept coming for books about police, racism, and history.”  People needed books – of all kinds – for refuge, and many lists of them are provided here.  Ultimately, the importance of the word – and the sentences made from those words – become the theme of the novel, a way for readers to think in new directions, experience new ideas, and, perhaps change from within during times of almost unimaginable crisis.

Author Louise Erdrich

Author Louise Erdrich


Photos.  The photo of Birch Bark Books, owned by author Louise Erdrich, comes from https://streets.mn

The Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM appears on https://www.expedia.com

Haskell Indian Nations University where Louise was speaking as Covid became a major issue, is shown here:  https://lawrencekstimes.com

The George Floyd poster may be found on https://www.msnbc.com

The author photo is from https://www.chicagotribune.com

“Men, I believe, are defined by the shadows they cast.  Most, despite force of numbers and efforts, leave little trace.  Like ants toiling under the noonday sun, their shadows are picayune and ephemeral.  Others, like the trees of the forest canopy, cast a pall far greater…influencing all who fall beneath.  But there are a deadly few who pass through invisible, yet leave everything altered in their wake…Those who have no shadow are the most dangerous of all.”

cover the shadows of men, mukherjeeIn the fifth installment of the Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, set in 1923, author Abir Mukherjee once again recreates the complex issues of colonialism in India after World War I, laying the groundwork for the tensions, the hostility among those of competing religious views, and the overriding fear that an all-out religious war might break out at any moment.  The Hindus, Muslims, devotees of Mahatma Gandhi, and the British are all committed to keeping India free from tyranny, but each wants his own version of “freedom,” and no one agrees with anyone else.  Author Abir Mukherjee is able to convey this confusion and frustration among all those of influence by using two very different characters.  Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, often known as “Surrender Not” Banerjee for his attitudes and the pun on his name – is a Hindu from Calcutta who is working with Sam Wyndham of the British Imperial Police Force, to try to bring peace and avoid anarchy as a result of all the competing social and religious interests.  Suren sees British Sam as one who possesses “unhindered serenity. As untroubled and uncomprehending of such things as the elephant is by the barking of pariah dogs and oblivious to the Indian point of view.”  After all, he says, “Even the lowest of them glides along with the air of those born to rule – not their own country, but ours.”

abirmukherjee400Officer Sam Wyndham, by contrast, is aware that his work in Calcutta is for a “system of justice…which wasn’t particularly concerned with ethics, or with the innocence of a man if he were brown and his accusers were white.”  He just wants to avoid violence.  To maintain these different points of view, author Mukherjee creates alternating, separate chapters in which each character participates separately in some kind of action, while the other is involved in some other crisis not necessarily discussed till another chapter.  Often the two seem to be acting at cross-purposes, but Mukherjee is very clever, also giving Sam Wyndham access to information which affects Suren Banerjee, even as Suren is discovering new facts which will affect Sam Wyndham.  The back-and-forth of point of view, a bit confusing at the beginning, gives the reader an opportunity so see both sides equally, and as both are involved in real action, the characters have a chance to reveal their own inner characters to the reader as the novel progresses.

Wolseley Police car.

Wolseley Police car.

The opening chapter takes place after some action by Suren, concerned for the reader because he wishes Sam could tell about it.  As Sam is not present at the time, Suren must tell his own tale.  Slowly, the reader learns that Suren “may no longer be sitting in a prison cell,” but that his “present moments are still curtailed to the few yards either side of this cabin and by the fear that I might be recognized.”  Suren admits from the outset that he is not innocent, but that “I am not guilty of all of which I am accused.”  Though the reason for his arrest is not yet revealed, his problems had all started after Lord Taggart, the British police commissioner had asked Suren what he knew about Farid Gilmohamed, a Bombay financier and prominent Muslim politician for the Union of Islam.  He wanted Suren, a Hindu, to keep an eye on Gilmohamed, a Muslim.

Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s

Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s

Sam, for his part, had a different task, that of arresting and holding the son of a Hindu man they wanted to “persuade” to “draw a line under his little war with the Muslims.”  As if the issues between Muslims and Hindus were not enough, Mahatma Gandhi, who had been helping to keep a lid on the chaos, had found “in the space of months,” that “his ideas had turned to dust, hatred, and communal bloodshed.” Recently assigned to six years in prison, Gandhi was suddenly out of contact, unable to guide any independence movement.  Suddenly, all the conflicts become worse: not just religious tensions but tensions between upper and lower castes, landowners and peasants, and, of course, with the British.  Then Suren, who was supposed to help Sam, become unavailable, and the reader finally learns why was arrested.   He had been caught inside a burning house, which he admitted burning, with a dead Hindu theologian, Prashant Mukherjee, hidden inside.

Vickers Vernon plane, early 1920s, whiich Sam and Suren wouldd have taken to Bombay from Calcutta.

Vickers Vernon plane, early 1920s, which Sam and Suren wouldd have taken to Bombay from Calcutta.

With this much action taking place in just the first twenty pages, two different points of view (Sam and Suren) reflecting non-chronological action, a complex historical record, and many different religious points of view, readers will probably be flipping pages back and forth trying to get relationships clear.  Eventually, they do clear up, and when the action moves to Bombay, Suren accompanies Sam on the plane trip, as fires break out in the north.  The trip does not lead to any reduction in action with the search for Farid Gulmohamed, now thought to have been the real killer of Prashant Mukherjee, taking much time, Suren being chased by potential killers, and the introduction of a friendly elite family with a very kind woman who is determined to help them.  The contrast between life in Calcutta and life in more elegant Bombay becomes clear, even as new names, aliases, and new possible crimes emerge, culminating in a bombing, and ultimately a resolution of sorts, leading the reader to believe that this series is set up to continue.

Haji Ali Tomb and Mosque, where Sam has a confrontaition with Gulmohamed

Haji Ali Tomb and Mosque, where Sam has a confrontation with Gulmohamed

Abir Mukherjee clearly enjoys writing this series, as he keeps his details – all of them – very precise.  Whether he is describing characters, details of setting, the historical background, or some of the very elaborate action involving characters, the author stays on course, often stopping briefly within especially complex chapters to provide some welcome summaries of the action that is being brought up to date. And when Sam finally has a confrontation at the Haji Ali tomb and mosque with Gulmohamed, the reader can easily imagine being there.  This complex, historical and sociological novel offers much for the reader to ponder, and even more to reflect on after the last page is turned.

ALSO by Abir Mukherjee:  SMOKE AND ASHES

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://crimefictionlover.com

The Wolseley police car is from: https://www.alamy.com

The photo of Gandhi may be found on https://www.nationalgeographic.org

The Vickers Vernon plane appears on https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Haji Ali Tomb and Mosque are from https://in.pinterest.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, India, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Abir Mukherjee
Published by: Pegasus Crime
Date Published: 11/11/2021
ISBN: 978-1643137445
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“I look through the glass partition to the worker pool and can’t help thinking of slow dinosaurs.  A cow-eyed herd, gathered placidly and chewing amongst low tree ferns with vegetarian stupidity.  Every now and then someone reaches for a mug.  Like they’re picking fruit, foraging amongst felty partitions in the sulphured air, their backs hunched over computers…”

cover stillicideFor Welsh author Cynan Jones, the comparison of this company’s workers to dinosaurs is not accidental.  After all, he observes, “ninety-nine percent of species that have ever lived have gone extinct,” and it looks as if humans may now be on the list for the near future.  Reminded of the “parasaurs,” he notes that they, too, “had rudimentary linguistics,” lived in herds within “a rigid social hierarchy,” and experienced “midway intelligence,” not unlike the future society in which Jones’s characters are living and working.  Branner, who becomes Jones’s main character, uniting this novel through his actions in the beginning and ending, is a former soldier, employed as a police guardian on the railway working to transport ten million gallons of water to the city, while traveling at two hundred miles per hour.  On duty as the novel opens, Branner, who has been pre-occupied, sees a red warning light which has suddenly appeared on his scanner. His duty tells him to shoot immediately to protect the community’s much needed water supply, but his wife is seriously ill at home and possibly facing imminent death.  He is so depressed by these thoughts of her that he is wondering whether to shoot the enemy or let the army kill him as an unidentified trespasser.  He thinks the red dot might possibly be a muntjac, a kind of deer which people grill and eat, but he’s not sure – and so he delays till the last minute his decision on whether to shoot toward the red light or let the army end his sadness.


Cactus Flowers, which Ruth especially likes.

Eleven additional episodes, featuring new and often overlapping characters, follow, in which the humans who live in this future society reveal their own lives.  In the second episode, the community is in the process of attempting to help solve the water crisis by dragging a large chunk of iceberg all the way from the Arctic to the city to provide water, but they will need to demolish many homes in order to get it to the Dock. Public protests against the demolitions are frequent. One family is now in crisis because their home is one of those about to be demolished to make way for “stillicide channels.”  These channels will carry some of the melting water from the iceberg along a tow-track from the ocean to its Dock, thereby saving water. Fortunately, the speaker in this episode is living with a woman who has a child, Hillie, whose imagination sometimes provides a break in the misery which has begun dominating their everyday lives.  Sometimes little Hillie pretends the city is a great old-fashioned ocean liner sailing through the sea, and sometimes she makes paper flowers, perhaps similar to their cactus flowers, to give away to friends.  Ultimately, the speaker imagines the family selling their flowers and filling the city with blooms, or maybe planting flowers in the cracks of the curbs as the new Ice Berg project gets underway.

Limpets and their colorful shells.

Limpets and their colorful shells.

Despite the Water Train and the Ice Berg project, some of the residents are still lovers of nature, eating limpets,  collecting their intriguing shells, and going to the beach and admiring the baby sand martins, whose very lives are challenged.  Some scientists have claimed that the holes the sand martins make in the cliffs as they are nesting contribute to erosion, while others have pulled down nets the council has put up to try to stop that erosion.  “There was a whole ocean to hold back, but they opted to stop the half-ounce birds,” one remarks drily.  Another couple is deciding whether to accept the government relocation money along the beach, especially in view of the attacks down the line.  Although the old bandstand has gone into the ocean because of the rising tides, ancient artifacts are appearing, and one man has discovered a Bronze Age brooch which he gives to one of the women.  Still, the displacement of residents is a major issue, and controversy keeps caring residents busy, concerned that while icebergs “have been effective in supplying smaller cities [with water] on a more modest scale,” that the current supply is not enough.  “Ultimately, we’re animals,” one says.  And animals find ways.”  Some additional viewpoints appear from a corporate executive, a journalist, a nurse, and a professor to broaden the scope.

Baby sand martins, whose ability to endanger erosion is questionable

Baby sand martins, whose ability to stimulate erosion is questionable

As the circumstances in the community change rapidly, with hostilities and enmities growing, Branner re-enters in the conclusion to provide a human touch which every reader will identify with, even amidst the serious environmental problems. Love re-enters the picture, and homey details, such as making ice cream, and a little boy falling in love with a stray dog, receive some attention, even as the community attempts to capture a “calf” (a small iceberg) and conduct an experiment with catching fish.  As the novel returns to Banner, his sick wife, and the future they face, all the speculation regarding the future is placed into perspective, providing an emotional and thought-provoking ending.  As Banner faces a horrific choice regarding the Water Train, the reader faces it with him.

Welsh author Cynan Jones

Welsh author Cynan Jones

Cynan Jones writes with such great care for his readers that this futuristic, experimental novel is totally human.  Even readers who do not usually like or read this genre will probably be thrilled by this work for its exciting and often new ideas, and the author’s ability to share his own attitudes without being ponderous.  Though he includes many characters whose presence broadens the scope and creates interest before they disappear from the story, the feelings they reveal in relation to the themes add dramatically to the novel.  Though the novel has some intense descriptions (as appear in the review’s opening quotation), it can also be gritty and plainspoken when the author needs to get a point across.  Themes are clear without being polemical, and most, if not all, of Jones’s readers will clearly understand the points he is making, even when his style and narrative pattern vary widely from the norm.  On a personal note, I am not a fan of futuristic novels, but I totally enjoyed this book and feel as if Cynan Jones and his novels will quickly become All-Time literary favorites. This novel is at the top of my Favorites for this year.

ALSO by Jones:  COVE

Muntjac, a kind of deer, sometimes used for food

Muntjac, a kind of deer, sometimes used for food

Photos.  The cactus flowers which Ruth enjoys are found at https://pixels.com

The limpets in their colorful shells are from https://www.azoreslovers.com

The baby sand martins appear on https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk

The Cynan Jones photo is found on https://lithub.com

A muntjac, a form of deer sometimes eaten for food, is from  https://www.lazoo.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Imagined Time, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Wales
Written by: Cynan Jones
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 11/17/2020
ISBN: 978-1646220137
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Domenico Starnone–TRUST

Note:  Domenico Starnone, author of fourteen works of fiction, is WINNER of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize, WINNER of the John Florio Prize, and FINALIST for the 2018 National Book Award.

“I’ve loved, I’ve loved until I’ve lost my mind and my wits.  Love as I’ve known it, in fact, is a lava of crude life that burns the refined one, an eruption that obliterates understanding and piety, reason and rights, geography and history, sickness and health, richer and poorer, exceptions and the rules.  All that’s left is a yearning that twists and distorts, an obsession without a cure.” – opening lines of the novel.

cover trust stanonePietro Vella, a thirty-year-old teacher, as the novel opens, is not afraid to share the story of the loves of his life, even if, at the outset, his story may verge on purple prose in the telling.  At thirty, he has had two great loves, the first, a girl named Teresa, who was a student in his classes in high school and became his lover for three years after she graduated. Theirs was a passionate and spontaneous love filled with wild ups and downs, and when it looked as if Teresa was finally outgrowing the relationship, she suggested a way to cement their time together forever.  Each would would tell the other some secret, one so awful that it would destroy the teller’s life if anyone else ever came to know it.  A few days later, they “told each other that [their] affair had reached its end,” and they broke up.  Teresa went off to study at a university in Wisconsin, and Pietro went on with his life.  Soon he had met and pursued Nadia, a first year teacher at his school who was the emotional opposite of Teresa.  Nadia had had the same boyfriend for six years and was planning her wedding to him, but that wedding that was soon canceled, not without some agony for Nadia, and she and Pietro began their affair.  Calling her Nigritella, like the famous orchid Nigritella Rubra of Italy’s Peligna Valley, Pietro uses this nickname for Nadia to reflect “a passion that would never end and for sex that, as soon as it was over, wanted to start up again.”  Their wedding occurs  shortly afterward.

When Nadia offers some criticism of Pietro, he does not engage, except with a quotation from playwright Bertolt Brecht

When Nadia offers some criticism of Pietro, he does not engage, except with a quotation from playwright Bertolt Brecht (above)

With all this action taking place in the first twenty pages of the novel, author Domenico Starnone has set the scene for the development of the ensuing story of Pietro’s lifetime in Italy with Nadia, and eventually their family.  Teresa fades into the background as she lives and works in the United States, though she reappears occasionally by letter (in answer to Pietro’s own letters), over the next forty years.  Pietro spends much time trying to figure out who he is, what his goals are, how his memories affect his life, and how much he owes his wife Nadia , at the same time that he gains recognition for his work.  By far, the longest section of the novel is the early years of Pietro’s relationship with Nadia, but Starnone’s interest in showing the long-term effects of their relationship on each other continues throughout.  Nadia gives up her own academic job, and devotes her life to her family and to Pietro.  At one point, however, she admonishes Pietro for his feelings of self-importance, pointing out that he’d “never have written three words without [her].”  Pietro’s response is to quote Bertolt Brecht, “On every page a victory. / Who cooked the victory banquet?”  Nadia is not impressed by his masculine attitude:  “Cooking’s the least of it, a cook’s salary would suffice.  You owe me a lot more.”

Teresa leaves her home in Washington Square, New York, to attend a tribute to Pietro in Rome.

Teresa leaves her home in Washington Square, New York, to attend a tribute to Pietro in Rome.

“The Second Story,” told by Emma,  daughter of Pietro and Nadia, shifts fifty years into the future.  Emma, twice divorced and the mother of four daughters, works as a front-line journalist.  When she learns by accident that on a national day dedicated to the schools, during which an outstanding professor will be granted a national prize, she determines that her father, Pietro Vella, not only deserves to be one of the candidates, but deserves also to be the winner.  Best of all, she knows someone who is famous throughout the world, and she is betting that she can persuade this person, Professor Teresa Quardraro, to come to Rome from New York, meet the Italian president, and make the presentation to Pietro Vella for his work in education.  “The Third Story,” Part III, is Teresa’s end-of-life story.  After twenty-five years of no contact, Pietro, now nearing age eighty-five, has sent her a copy of a novel he has written about his life in politics and education.  At seventy-two, Teresa is widely regarded as an expert sensitive to feminist goals and the honest assessment of political issues and corruption, and she agrees to come to Rome for the presentation of the special award, to meet the president, and to say something in Pietro’s honor.

Prize-winning Italian novelist Domenico Starnone

Prize-winning Italian novelist Domenico Starnone

The novel’s conclusion, in keeping with Starnone’s themes of love, its dependence on self-knowledge, and the kind of honesty which evolves from the trust and respect which two people must have in each other, provides conclusions regarding Pietro, Nadia, Teresa, and the people surrounding them.  The action, carefully described, depends largely on the causes and effects of the choices made by the main characters as they lead the lives that they believe they have created for themselves.  With three main characters, however, the reader cannot help but see how little awareness some of them, especially Pietro, have of who they really are.  Questions of how they have come to believe what they do, why they act as they do, and what they may do in the future – all psychological action – are raised through the plot, and author Starnone provides the careful reader with answers to these questions as the plot leaps from characters in their twenties and thirties, to the same characters in their seventies and eighties. Ultimately, Starnone shifts back to the scene in the beginning pages, where Pietro and Teresa each tell their Big Secret, trusting the other never to tell anyone else what these secrets are.  For the first time, the reader is privy to Teresa’s understandings about the relationship she shared with Pietro, not just the effects of those actions on Pietro, and it ties up all the themes and any loose elements of plot.  The ending is a classic for those who have become involved in this novel and its psychologies.


Pietro calls Nadia "Negritella," for the Negritella orchid which he thinks she resembles.

Pietro calls Nadia “Negritella,” for the Negritella Rubra orchid which he thinks she resembles.

Side note:  Author Starnone may have his own big secret.  Married to author Anita Raja, who is believed by many to be the real author of the “Elena Ferrante” novels, Starnone has been suggested as a literary partner and co-author of Ferrante in the production of these novels.  The NYTimes of Oct. 3, 2016 has a full story.

ALSO by Starnone:    TIES,   TRICK

Photos.  The photo of Bertolt Brecht is from  https://www.pinterest.com

The arch in Washington Square, NYC, may be found here https://ny.curbed.com

The author photo appears on https://www.ilsussidiario.net

The Negritella rubra orchid, which Pietro loves.  http://www.freenatureimages.eu

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Domenico Starnone
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 11/09/2021
ISBN: 978-1609457037
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Older Posts »