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Like so many others who have book blogs/websites, I like to check the site’s statistics, occasionally, to see which reviews are the most popular.  Some readers probably come here for reviews because they are students with assigned reading, some because they are interested in reading about a particular part of the world, and some because the authors are popular  favorites.

Here are the most popular book reviews on this site from January 1, 2014 – June 31, 2014:

1.  Jo Nesbo, THE REDEEMERa perennial favorite here and a continuing surprise to me because it is not my favorite book by Jo Nesbo, and I’ve reviewed all of them here.  (My favorite is THE REDBREAST.)

2.  D. H. Lawrence, SONS AND LOVERS–a classic novel (1913), and his most autobiographical.

3.  Alan Paton, THE HERO OF CURRIE ROAD–a book which has been in the top three of my Most Popular Reviews ever since that review was posted in 2009.  The popularity of this review comes despite the fact that the book has never been released in the US or UK at all!  Copies of the book, published by “RandomHouse South Africa,” are available only through outside vendors on Barnes and Noble and  Amazon in the South African edition.  It is, however, a wonderful, autobiographical collection of stories well worth pursuing for those who have long admired Paton and his role in South Africa.

4.  Edith Wharton, SUMMER–another classic (1917), and Wharton’s “most explicitly sexual novel.”

5.  Edmund de Waal, THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES–my favorite non-fiction book in many years!  A real treat for art lovers and historians.  Do take a look at the video at the bottom of the review.  The author is a prize-winning potter, in addition to being a sensitive writer.

6.  D. H. Lawrence, WOMEN IN LOVE–another classic (1920), often considered Lawrence’s greatest novel.

7.  Kamila Shamsie, KARTOGRAPHY–a warm and complex study of friendship and political unrest which deserves much wider readership.  The book, written and originally reviewed in 2003 and set in Pakistan, came on strong in this year’s site rankings.

8.  Maurizio de Giovanni, I WILL HAVE VENGEANCEthe first of a series of four mysteries set in Naples in the 1930s, during the reign of Mussolini.  Creative, and sometimes humorous, these mysteries are filled with local color.

9.  Zachary Mason, THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY–a post-modern version of this classic epic–casual, playful, and earthy.   The book is often humorous, despite its obvious attention to the original story.  The map of Odysseus’s journey (by Annenberg Lerner) , included here, also receives numerous hits on its own.

10.  Jane Gardam, A LONG WAY FROM VERONA–Published in 1971, and re-released this year by Europa Editions, it is Jane Gardam’s first novel, which begins when she is thirteen and first discovers the joy of books and writing, continuing through her teens, as the war breaks out.  Lovers of Gardam’s later novels will be especially interested to see how she became the writer she is.

Jennie Rooney–RED JOAN

“Would there have been the same laxity in the security checks if a man with a science degree from Cambridge had been in the same role as you?…Not only did they not check up on you, but the reason they didn’t was because you’re female.” –Joan’s barrister son Nick.

British author Jennie Rooney, who studied history at Cambridge, was first inspired to write this story of spies within Britain’s top secret atomic research labs when she read a newspaper article in 1999 about Melita Norwood, age eighty-seven, who was revealed to have been the “most important and longest-serving Soviet spy of the Cold War era.”  After her unmasking, Ms. Norwood’s interview with the press and her appearance on television, in which she was “rather economical with the truth, and not hugely remorseful,” according to Rooney, energized Rooney to investigate further.  At the same time she began to imagine the circumstances under which a seemingly innocuous worker for several British labs doing atomic research could have willingly passed documents and research notes to Russia for use in their own frantic race to develop nuclear weapons – all this without coming to the attention of MI5, the British Security Service until fifty years later. Just as importantly, Rooney also wanted to understand why and how Norwood – or anyone else, for that matter – could betray her own country and be able to live with herself, quietly and comfortably, in the very country whose secrets she had so treacherously revealed.

Author photo by Eamonn McCabe.

The result is a thoughtful and provocative novel, not a biography, in which a woman named Joan Stanley leads a life somewhat similar to that of Melita Norwood in its external details, though the author asserts strongly in the Author’s Note that “The differences between the two women…are varied and multiple, and Joan Stanley is not intended to be a representation of Melita Norwood.”  Likewise, she says, the fictional character of Sonya Galich, who “controlled” Joan Stanley, is similar in some ways to Melitta Norwood’s friend, Ursula Beurton, also known as Ruth Werner or Ruth Kuczynski, whose code name was also Sonya, though the fictional Sonya Galich is not based on Beurton’s real life.  A Russian emigree who worked in England, Ursula Beurton was also the controller of German scientist Klaus Fuchs, who, much like the fictional character of Kierl in the novel, passed information from American, British and Canadian research labs to Russia and was eventually convicted of spying in 1950.  Giving further verisimilitude to the narrative, Rooney incorporates additional historical detail to bring the times and the atmosphere at the end of World War II to vibrant life and to provide motivation for the actions taken by some of her characters here.

Melita Norwood, 1999.

The novel begins dramatically, in the present, with the ominous death of Sir William Mitchell of the Foreign Office, a man Joan Stanley has known since his early career as a Special Operations Executive during the war, more than sixty years ago.  “She knows the cause of death without needing to be told…something irrefutable, to have made him believe it was not worth trying to defend himself and his reputation,” and she wonders if new evidence of her own past has finally surfaced. She is not really surprised when “they come for her later that [Sunday] morning,” and accuse her of twenty-seven breaches of the Official Secrets Act” – treason – announcing that she should say anything she has to say in her own defense between then and Friday, because her name will be released to the House of Commons that day, with all the attendant publicity.  She denies any involvement whatsoever, however, then begins musing, privately, about her life when she was eighteen.

Cavendish Lab, Cambridge, where Joan worked, and where, earlier in 1932, physicists first split the atom.

Joan Stanley, as a Cambridge university student majoring in physics, is befriended by flamboyant fellow student Sonia Galich almost immediately after her arrival at college, and their fast friendship is enhanced by their shared interest in anti-fascist activities, Sonia through her membership in the communist party and Joan through her innocence and her upbringing as the daughter of a rural preacher who believed that the “government was letting people down,” his own version of socialism.  Through Sonya, an emigree orphan from Russia who grew up in Leipzig with her cousin Leo, Joan soon becomes attracted to Leo, believing that she is truly in love with him.  Leo introduces her to his political friends, declaring that he is “a socialist, not an anarchist,” and stating, idealistically, that he is looking for proof that the Soviet system works, that “if a society is properly planned and organised there will never be any unemployment.  Every person will be able to contribute.”

Later Joan and her boss, Max Davis, go to the Chalk River Labs in Canada to continue their search for a nuclear breakthrough.

The novel moves back and forth between the present and the past of the early 1940s, and the reader gradually comes to know all the characters, including Joan’s adopted son Nick, a barrister QC who represents her, determined to prove her innocent of the espionage charges.  Joan’s relationship with Sonia, who is much more aggressive about her political commitment and wants Joan to share it, changes with the tides in this novel, as does her relationship with Leo who is constitutionally unable to commit to any relationship, and when Sonia announces that she, Jewish, is planning to go to Switzerland immediately, before the official outbreak of war  in England, she tells Joan that she is relying on her to tell her what is happening in England.

Ursula Beurton/Ruth Werner, code named Sonya, who inspired the fictional Sonya, Joan's "controller" for the Soviets, though the book is not really modeled on her life.

Shortly afterward, Joan receives a letter from the Metals Research Facility in Cambridge asking her to appear for an interview with Dr. Max Davis, for whom she must sign a non-disclosure agreement, part of the Official Secrets Act.  Joan now realizes that she will be working at a site dedicated to research toward the development of an atomic bomb.  How and why that is a turning point in Joan’s relationship with her country become the focus of the rest of the novel.  With her relatively straightforward plotting and the revealing back-and-forth of the point of view, the author has plenty of opportunity to develop her characters and their relationships, providing the reader with insights into the extraordinary circumstances which might drive someone to betray his/her country.  Ultimately, the novel moves beyond the time and place of the setting to larger questions of one’s overriding obligations to a nation (and the world at large) during times of unprecedented upheaval, forcing the reader to consider his/her own role as a human being and then as a citizen of a particular country.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Eamonn McCabe appears on http://www.theguardian.com/

Melita Norwood, on whose life this novel is loosely based, is shown in a story on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

The Cavendish Lab at Cambridge, where, in 1932, the atom was “split,” is also where Joan worked in one of her earliest jobs as a physicist.  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk

The Chalk River Labs, a later job for Joan and her boss, Max Davis, in Canada, expands the focus of the spy story and the involvement of Joan and other western scientists.  http://www.nuclearfaq.ca/

Ursula Beurton/Ruth Werner/Ruth Kuczynski, codename Sonya, inspired the character of Sonya Galich, though only in general terms, according to the Author’s Note. http://www.e-politik.de/lesen/artikel/2009/stalins-meisterspionin/

ARC:  Europa Editions

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Premio Herralde de Novela for Best Debut Novel in Spain when it was first published in 1999.

“We live our lives thinking we know who we are and how we’ll react in any given situation, but we just have to dig around a little in our memories to find significant examples of when we reacted quite differently from how we should have reacted…The variables that govern our responses, like the variables of memory, are entirely unforeseeable…Even our reactions or responses to the same stimulus are not always the same.”

Published in Spain in 1999 and just translated into English for the first time by renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa, Paris plumbs the depths of emotions, memories, and thoughts of the main character – as a schoolboy at the beginning and as an adult in the conclusion, twenty-two years later – as he tries to understand and reconcile serious issues about his father and mother, nearly all of which his mother keeps secret from him.  The boy and his mother share an intensely interdependent life since his father is absent for most of the novel, and though the boy accepts the little his mother does say about his father, he also explores on his own and discovers nuggets of additional information about his father which make him question everything else he already “knows.”  When, later in the novel, circumstances arise which his mother could never have predicted, he begins to question her whole story and all its mysteries:  “When our knowledge of a subject depends on the words of others, we can never be sure if they’ve told us everything or only a part….One often lies to and deceives the person one loves most in order to preserve their love, or to protect them.” He wonders “how much my mother will keep silent about until the end of her days.”

As he thinks about telling his own story, he believes that “there will be nothing contradictory…as long as everything I say is told from my point of view at the time.  Any gaps other than those in my own memory will have to continue to exist, because…what purpose would there be in trying to investigate them further?” Foreboding looms over every page, and Giralt Torrente does a remarkable job of tantalizing the reader with tiny bits of new information, as the boy accumulates it over the years, but even as an adult, with his mother in a nursing home, the boy, now man, occasionally has nightmares related to these childhood years.  He lives in a permanent state of incomplete knowledge about his childhood, and he is unhappy that “I will never know more than I know now.”  Perhaps, he suggests, “it’s the impossibility of getting beyond mere speculation,” the perpetual uncertainty about his past, that is so difficult to cope with.

Burgos, where the boy's father was in prison, is also, ironically, the birthplace of Spain's national hero, El Cid.

As the novel begins, the young boy describes his father’s arrest one night when the family has guests for dinner, followed by his father’s subsequent disappearance for two years.  The boy is young enough that his father’s disappearance to some unknown place is something he simply accepts.  It is not until later that the boy learns about a suitcase of money that his father had hidden under the bed.  Gradually, he also learns of other mysterious schemes in which his father has been involved, just as he has also been involved with several other women.  One of his most vivid memories occurs two years after his father’s arrest, when his mother tells him that they are going to Burgos to pick up his father, reminding him in the car on the way that anyone can make a mistake, while she also “paints a picture of him that [is] real and at the same time comprehensible and forgivable.” After his father’s release from prison, his father spends little time at home, and he receives strange phone calls. He does not seem to have regular work.  On one family trip to Toledo to “see an exhibition” at the castle, which is closed for the day, the family stops at a bar for something to eat.  A strange man comes up to talk at length with the “Professor,” his father, in a vernacular that the boy has never heard before, something he later learns is “prison slang.”  His mother tells him nothing more, though the boy prowls around when no one is at home and discovers a few secrets in his father’s “office.”

The castle in Toledo, where the boy and his family expected to attend an exhibition.

When the father disappears again later, the boy goes with his mother to visit her sister in La Coruna, a seaside community many hours’ drive from Madrid, where he has often spent the summer.  This time, however, he learns that he will be staying there with his childless aunt Delfina for most of a year, even going to school there, while his mother travels mysteriously to Paris to live.  Bereft of both parents, the resilient boy still copes, but he has no idea what his mother is doing in Paris and is not able to visit her there while she is gone.  Upon her return almost a year later, the boy has grown older and developed feelings of adolescent rebellion, sometimes getting angry with her now.  “My mother had not been the same since she returned from Paris,” he tells us, “and although it’s true that I could not have said what the difference was, I was sure she had undergone some kind of transformation.”  The mystery of Paris becomes and remains a major question about his mother’s life.

When the boy and his family are in Toledo they go to a bar/cafe, where the father is recognized as the "Professor," and has a conversation in "prison slang" with a former inmate.

Students of writing will be fascinated by the ways in which Giralt Torrente maintains suspense by presenting information in little dribbles instead of in big, dramatic scenes.  He has a formidable task, since the “action” of the novel takes place almost exclusively inside the boy’s head – his inner thoughts, the assumptions he makes about his mother, the conclusions he draws about his father, questions he has which never get answered, and the lack of any kind of finality or reconciliation about the questions surrounding his family and his own life.   The second big challenge which Giralt Torrente faces also grows out of all this internal action.  Because nothing much really happens externally in terms of dramatic scenes, there is very little dialogue, other than what the main character has with himself.  This eliminates much of the subtle interaction among characters which readers customarily use to identify with characters and draw conclusions about who they “really” are.  Instead, the author tells us in great detail what the main character is thinking and feeling, filtering information about others and their relationships through the boy’s reactions and not through the objective lens of the characters’ own interactions.

Waterfront sculpture/mosaic in La Coruna, where the boy lived for almost a year with his aunt while his mother was in Paris.

Though some of the mysteries of the novel remain mysteries even in the conclusion, there is one dramatic revelation (so tucked away that anyone who skims the final pages will miss it)  that constitutes a complete paradigm shift, one which changes every aspect of the main character’s life and all the reader’s perceptions.  Now, twenty-two years after the opening scenes, the reader must ponder this shocking new information and view it and the past in light of the main character’s earlier statement  that “the lie intended to preserve love is the one you never reveal.”

Photos, in order: The author ‘s photo appears on http://ivanthays.com.pe

The Burgos monument to El Cid, Spain’s national hero from the 11th century,  appears on http://en.wikipedia.org/ Photo by ElCaminodeSantiago09 2006 on Flicker, with many other photos from Burgos.

The Alcazar Castle in Toledo may be found on http://www.viator.com/ It was closed when the family arrived.

The family then went to a cafe/bar, with “a very cramped space, and at the back, a few tables topped with faux-wood Formica. ” They decided to sit instead at the bar.   http://www.latortugaviajera.com

The octopus sculpture on the waterfront in La Coruna, where the boy lived for almost a year, is a well-known local landmark:  http://davidsbeenhere.com

The prison at Burgos appears on http://www.panoramio.com Photo by mmrespeto on http://www.panoramio.com/, which also includes many other photos from Burgos.

ARC: Hispabooks

The isolated Burgos Prison is a far cry from the elegant setting of the statue of El Cid, the national hero of Spain from the 11th century, also in Burgos.

“I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children.  I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, however, never overlay, never furnish or adorn.  Open door, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.”

In this truly unique novel, so surprising and so exhilarating that I read it twice during the past week,  I came to know, in a very real way, an author whose currently unwritten new novels I can hardly wait to discover in the future.  Valeria Luiselli, a debut novelist from Mexico, left me stunned the first time I read this novel, though I was excited by her daring approach to writing and awe-struck at her ingenuous and totally honest inclusion of herself, for better and worse, in all phases of the narrative.  By the time I had read it a second time, I was even more impressed by her ability to jump around and make herself at home within three different time periods while telling multiple, somewhat connected stories from four different points of view – that of her contemporary self, of her earlier self before her marriage, of her architect husband, and of Gilberto Owen, a virtually unknown Mexican author-poet from the late 1920s whose work the unnamed main character is trying to have published.  None of these points of view are static, and the author sometimes merges characters and the details of their lives as she plays with reality and imagination, which she sees as both an outgrowth of reality and as an influence on reality.  Fact and fiction become charmingly and often humorously combined in this novel about all aspects of the writing process as the author recreates herself both within her characters and within her own life.  It is an amazing journey for the reader.

Direct narrative here is at a minimum, as the author creates brief paragraphs or episodes and moves around within them, providing information about herself and about the other characters who become narrators themselves.  The novel opens in Mexico City with a precocious little boy awakening his mother with a question about mosquitoes.  She goes on to tell the reader that she also has a baby daughter and an architect husband and that she does most of her writing at night, “A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”  Her worktable is covered with diapers, toy cars, Transformers, bibs, rattles and paraphernalia, but she works anyway.  “Novels need a sustained breath,” she remarks, “That’s what novelists want.  No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath.  I have a baby and a boy.  They don’t let me breathe.  Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts.  I’m short of breath.” And she writes magnificently “in short bursts,” however short her breath may be.

The apartment building in Morningside Heights where Gilberto Owen lived in the late 1920s.

Gradually, we come to know her earlier life in New York City when she is single and works as an editor whose job it is to find books by Latin American authors worth translating or reissuing.  She leads a bohemian life surrounding herself with unusual characters, like Moby, who forges and then prints rare books on his homemade printing press, selling them to “well-to-do intellectuals”; Dakota, who sings in bars and subways and takes showers at the speaker’s apartment; and Pajarote, a philosophy student who sometimes stays overnight at her apartment.  Her publisher, White, often shares stories about famous authors and is somewhat taken aback by the fact that the speaker is “the only Latin American woman [he knows] who wasn’t a friend of Bolano.”

Eventually, in the Columbia Library, the speaker finds a letter by Mexican poet Gilberto Owen in 1928 to fellow writer Xavier Villaurrutia, giving Owen’s address in Morningside Heights, New York, and she decides to find the building, eventually getting inside, then climbing to the roof, where she finds a dead tree in a bucket which she believes must have belonged to Owen, a motif that echoes throughout the novel.

Duke Ellington during the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s.

When she gets locked out and cannot get back down from the roof, she spends the night there, shivering, but makes the most of it:  “I’d say that I began that night to live as if inhabited by another possible life that wasn’t mine, but one which, simply by the use of imagination, I could give myself up to completely.  I started looking inward from the outside, from someplace to nowhere.  And I still do, even when…the baby and the boy are asleep, and I could also be asleep.”  She takes the dead tree home.

Ghosts and visions appear, whether they inhabit the house she occupies in Mexico City or in a New York bar where, perhaps drugged, she sees William Carlos Williams sitting beside her, the poet Zvorsky at a table, Ezra Pound hanging in a cage at the corner counter, and Garcia Lorca tossing him peanuts. She also sees Owen’s face in the crowded subway, even as he comments to someone else that he has also seen a girl in a red coat (the speaker) riding the subway, another repeating motif.

Ezra Pound in the late 1920s

Finding literary works by Owen becomes problematic for her, however, so she eventually fabricates a manuscript and gets Moby to help her forge it, work supposedly translated by the famed translator Zvorsky.  She imagines Owen seeing Duke Ellington in 1920s Harlem, and meeting with Garcia Lorca, a neighbor, and she feels no qualms about expanding on Owen’s life, remaining scrupulously honest as she imagines what his life might have been like, as he becomes friends with Ezra Pound and others.  Before long, the imaginary life of Owen and the life of the author overlap and eventually coalesce.  Owen, blind in later life, becomes friendly with Homer Collyer (his first name being symbolic), also blind, one of the famed Collyer brothers who became recluses and hoarders in the 1930s, filling their enormous house with “stuff,” including fourteen pianos, twenty-five thousand books, and tens of thousands of newspapers.  The brothers’ deaths inside their jam-packed house in 1947 was one of New York’s biggest stories.

Owen often met with Homer Collyer sitting on these steps outside Collyer's house, where they would both eat chocolate ice cream, supposedly made with cocaine. Twenty years later, as seen in this photo, when neighbors summoned the police, the house had been filled to the rafters with "stuff" by the two Collyer brothers, hoarders.

Gradually, details from Owen’s story and the author’s combine with details overlapping so that the reader is unsure what is fact and what is purely imaginative.  But does it really matter, the author seems to ask.   Most readers of this novel will thrill at the experience of participating in the creation of a novel on all levels, even when not all of the threads and details of the story leading to the conclusion are resolved. Though I am not a huge fan of a lot of post-modern writing, I loved this book for its insights into the writing process, its excitement, and for the obvious trust the author exhibits that her readers will understand and share her journey – and enjoy it as much as she herself has obviously done.

(Artfully translated by Christina MacSweeney, who maintains the author’s light attitude, even as the philosophical issues of reality and imagination unfold.)

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.razon.com.mx

The building on Morningside Heights, where Owen supposedly had his apartment, is shown on http://www.propertyshark.com/

Duke Ellington as a young artist is seen here: http://elmiradornocturno.blogspot.com/

When police were called by neighbors to the Collyer house and opened the front door, they were confronted with this sight. Eventually, they had to make their way inside through a second-floor window

The photo of the young Ezra Pound, supposedly a friend of Gilberto Owen, may be found on http://www.poetryfoundation.org

Gilberto Owen often met Homer Collyer outside his house  on 128th and Fifth Avenue, where they both enjoyed eating chocolate ice cream, supposedly flavored with cocaine.  He never went inside the house, which, twenty years later, became famous when the two brothers, hoarders extraordinaire, died inside, under circumstances which the police and the public could not even begin to understand.http://www.nydailynews.com/

When the police went to open the house, this is what they confronted upon forcing the front door open.  Many of the windows had been boarded shut to prevent neighborhood kids from breaking them and trying to get inside.  The Collyers were reputed to be wealthy, and, in fact, were both millionaires, when adjusted for the current value of the dollar. Inside the house were fourteen pianos, over twenty-five thousand books, thirty-four bank account passbooks, and one hundred twenty tons of other debris collected by the brothers.  http://www.nydailynews.com See also Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyer_brothers

ARC:  Coffee House Press

“After many decades, I felt, grieving, that…I had not in any way managed to think [my mother's] thoughts from within her, from within her breath.  Already at that point her voice could say to me only: do this, do that.”

Though I have read and reviewed both My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name (with the new Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay scheduled for release in early September), it is this novel by Elena Ferrante which remains my favorite, and for that reason I am reposting a review which I posted on another site in January, 2007.  Ferrante impressed me then for her concentration on real life and for her insights into the relationships of mothers and daughters. I was impressed, too, by her ability to compress – to use images and scenes which subtly revealed far more than would be obvious on the surface.  In many ways, My Brilliant Friend, (2013),  and The Story of a New Name (Sept. 2013) reflect a dramatic change of literary focus – a broader, more elaborate one – for the author, and I am posting this here for those who may want to see another more concise, less romantic style by Ferrante.

Troubling Love, an intense psychological novel, translated into English and published in the US for the first time  in 2006 , tells of a daughter’s efforts to understand her mother following her mother’s death.  Delia, a comic strip artist and the oldest of three daughters, receives three strange phone calls from her mother, just before her mother disappears on her way from Naples to Rome to visit Delia.  When the body of Amalia, Delia’s mother, is ultimately discovered floating near a beach, she is nude, except for one piece of underwear, an elegant designer creation completely different from anything Delia has ever seen her wear.  Never very close to her mother but curious about the circumstances of her death, Delia leaves her own apartment in Rome to investigate her mother’s life in Naples.

There she learns from a neighbor that her mother had been seeing someone she had known for some time, that the water had been left running in her mother’s apartment, that there was no underwear in her bureau, and no toothbrush or toothpaste.  There was, however, an expensive shirt belonging to a man, and in a garbage bag, all her mother’s old, well-mended underclothing.  While she is cleaning out the apartment, a man telephones to tell her to leave the laundry bag of dirty clothes for him—that Amalia had promised to do so—and says he has left a suitcase of her mother’s things for her.  When Delia opens the suitcase, she finds items that are completely new, unlike anything her mother has ever worn.

So begins Delia’s quest to discover who her mother really was—and, in the process, who she herself is.  Before long, she has re-met a male friend from childhood, learned about the long-time acquaintance her mother had been seeing recently, and revisited scenes from her childhood.  In the process, she is forced to remember early events in her relationship with her mother, to re-examine her feelings about mother’s life from her present adult perspective, and to rethink her own role in affecting the outcome of her mother’s life.

Author Elena Ferrante, a pen name used by one of Italy’s foremost (and most private) contemporary authors, who may be either male or female, creates haunting mysteries from the lives of ordinary people leading seemingly ordinary lives—the kinds of mysteries which always exist for family members when they cannot quite get inside the lives and relationships of people they think they know but whose intimate lives they have never shared.  For Delia, this is particularly difficult, since “Out of hatred, out of fear, I had wanted to eliminate every root I had in [Amalia], even the deepest.”  Now that her mother is dead, she knows that many mysteries about her mother will always remain, even as her memories of her begin to fade.

This third book in the "trilogy" is scheduled for release in September, 2014. A fourth book is now planned for Spring, 2015.

As Delia revisits the places of her past and re-imagines events, Amalia’s relationships and her attitudes toward life begin to come into focus, her “friendly, at times even joyful, relationship with the world,” despite an abusive husband and a daughter who resented her.  As Delia reconnects with some of the people and places from the past, she begins to realize that she is more her mother’s daughter than she expected, that “I didn’t want to be ‘I,’ unless it was the I of Amalia.”

Dense with imagery which speaks directly to the reader’s own sensibilities about family, the novel recreates the mysteries that will always surround our parents and the personal experiences they have had that we can never fully understand.  At the same time, it reveals the mysteries within the main character, many of which the reader will never fully grasp.  Unique and intensely emotional, the novel is also full of ambiguities which resonate long after this short novel is completed–a dramatic and thought-provoking novel, and one of the only novels of a slender 139 pages that I have ever granted five stars, a ranking that I usually reserve for longer, more fully developed novels.  If you enjoy the recent “trilogy” involving Elena and Lila, which is about to become a quartet in March, you may want to take a look at this earlier, stand-alone novel, too, keeping in mind that it is a more compressed and subtle, less expansive novel.

ALSO by Elena Ferrante:  A “trilogy,” which begins with My Brilliant Friend (#1), The Story of a New Name (#2), and, scheduled for release in September, 2014, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (#3). A fourth book is now scheduled to be released in Spring, 2015.

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