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FICTION/Starnone Domenico
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New York, N.Y. : Europa Editions 2017.
Main Author
Domenico Starnone, 1943- (author)
Other Authors
Jhumpa Lahiri (translator)
Physical Description
150 pages ; 21 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

LET'S GET straight to the point. "Ties" is not only the leanest, most understated and emotionally powerful novel by Domenico Starnone - the least internationally known of Italy's leading novelists, a selfaware postmodernist in the Italo Calvino vein with a penchant for literary jokes and meta-narratives - it is also a key text in that burning literary mystery: Who is behind the pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante? Starnone happens to be married to Anita Raja, the literary translator who was identified as Ferrante last fall in a report - effectively an unmasking - by the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti that provoked fury among many of the author's fans, who didn't want to know. Gatti based his work on financial records, notably an uptick in Raja's payments from the parent company of Europa Editions, Ferrante's publisher and also the publisher of "Ties," here in a fluid English translation by the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri. But in literature, unlike investigative reporting, the telling is more important than the takeaway. "Ties" responds to Ferrante's 2002 novel "The Days of Abandonment" - the second book published under the name of Elena Ferrante, after "Troubling Love" 10 years earlier - and turns it inside out. The books share the same universal plot: A man leaves his wife and children for a younger woman. But the two authors take the story in different directions, and have different prose styles. "Ties" is in some ways a sequel to "The Days of Abandonment," in other ways an interlocking puzzle piece or another voice in a larger conversation. "The Days of Abandonment" is told from the perspective of Olga, a woman whose husband, Mario, has just left her and their young son and daughter for another woman. The story unfolds in often excruciating psychological detail, as Olga falls apart and then pulls herself together again. We have little access to Mario's inner life. "Ties" puts the same plot elements through a kaleidoscope, telling the tale from three different perspectives, first that of the wife, Vanda, then of the husband, Aldo, and eventually that of their grown children, jumping backward and forward in time over an arc of decades. "In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife," the novel begins. These are the words of Vanda, writing to Aldo, who has left after 12 years of marriage to move in with Lidia. "You see us as an obstacle to your happiness, a trap that smothers your desire for pleasure," she writes. It is 1974, and politics are in the background. "You came across a respectable young girl close at hand and in the name of sexual liberation and the dissolution of the family you became her lover," Vanda asserts. "You'll go on like this forever, you'll never be what you want, just what happens by chance." At the moment of this confrontation, Aldo tells Vanda only that he's "been with another woman," not the more hurtful truth that he's deeply in love with Lidia. We learn years later about his lack of nerve. Several years after this dramatic rupture, Aldo and Vanda come back together - a painful process that takes time; their new equilibrium requires them to hide things from each other. They live together for decades. One day, they return from a beach vacation to find their Rome apartment ransacked. In the chaos, the past comes rushing into the present. Out tumbles a box in which Aldo had kept photos of Lidia, and the letter from Vanda that opens the novel. He thinks back to that fraught time, to the day he told his wife he was leaving. "I tried to explain that it wasn't a matter of betrayal, that I had enormous respect for her, that real betrayal was when you betrayed your own instinct, your needs, your body, yourself," Aldo recalls, but Vanda, raging and cursing, would have none of it. "She shrieked, but then immediately she contained herself so as not to wake the children." The children grow up. We learn how their parents' breakup has shaped their adult selves. But in "Ties," no one has the last word. All the different truths are set before us, each given its due, each character fully realized, with the empathy and insight of a gifted novelist. Starnone's prose here is highly skilled without calling attention to itself. In this novel, unlike some of his others, the cleverness doesn't obstruct the emotional impact. Not incidentally, Aldo and Vanda both come from Naples. There's an unforgettable scene in which, on their way to the beach, a huckster takes money from Aldo. "We were raised in Naples for God's sake, and you let yourself get scammed like this?" Vanda tells him. The huckster has pretended to recognize Aldo, and Aldo assumes he might be a former student from the time when he taught high school or at a university in Rome. Like Aldo, Starnone was also a high school teacher who eventually found success as a writer for Italian television. In interviews with the Italian press, Starnone has said that his mother was a seamstress and his father an angry, jealous man who worked for the railway. This is also the background of the narrator of his 2000 novel "Via Gemito," which won Italy's prestigious Strega Prize, and that of the novelist protagonist of his 2007 novel "First Execution," the only other of his books to be translated into English. If this biography seems familiar, it is because it echoes the parentage Elena Ferrante claims in "Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey," a 2016 collection of interviews. Then again, elsewhere in "Frantumaglia," Ferrante cites Calvino, who once said, "I don't give biographical facts, or I give false ones, or anyway I always try to change them from one time to the next." "Ties" is the only recent novel by Starnone that doesn't become metafiction. Instead of stories within stories, we have "a series of Chinese boxes," as Lahiri writes in a brilliant introduction that made me want to read more literary criticism by her. Explaining her own preoccupation with this novel, Lahiri, who has written a book in Italian, describes how she fell in love with "Ties" and addresses the challenges of translating it. The Italian title is "Lacci," literally "laces," and there's a key scene in which Aldo teaches his daughter how to tie her shoes. But the word also indicates ties that bind, a meaning that evokes Aldo's desire to slip free of his marital bonds - then come back into their grip. This novel, as Lahiri writes, is ultimately about "the need to contain and the need to set free." When the book came out in Italian in 2014, the Italian paper La Repubblica interviewed Starnone about the similarities between it and "The Days of Abandonment." He said he had had "no contact" with Ferrante. "I have an ironic relation to writing," he said. "I don't consider it the priesthood, whereas this woman seems like the high priestess of writing." I smiled when I read this. Every couple is an enigma to outsiders, and often even to itself. "Ties" is also about that, about the unspoken mysteries that bind us, that push us away from one another and bring us back. We may never know what Starnone and Raja are cooking up in their kitchen. But I cannot think of two novelists writing today whose recent books are in such clever and complicit conversation as those of Starnone and Ferrante. There may not be a smoking gun here, but, luckily for us, there are oh so many Chinese boxes. Like Ferrante, Starnone writes of a husband leaving his family for a younger woman. Rachel Donadio is The Times's European culture correspondent. She was previously Rome bureau chief and a writer and editor at the Book Review.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [March 26, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

A couple, married with two young kids, is in crisis in 1970s Naples in Starnone's (First Execution, 2009) prizewinning, thirteenth novel. We learn of Aldo's estrangement from his family through the letters his wife, Vanda, writes to him then, before the novel quickly shifts to Aldo's narration of the present day. He and Vanda are together; their children are grown if reluctantly; and Aldo has achieved enough success to, combined with Vanda's relentless penny-pinching, afford them a beautiful home in Rome. They return from a week's vacation to find their apartment ransacked, the pieces of their life literally broken and scattered on every surface. Their minimal valuables are still there, but Vanda is bereft that their beloved cat is gone, while Aldo discovers, to his horror, that the beautiful box where he kept private, tender remembrances of his betrayal is now empty. Both a whodunit and a who-did-what-when, Starnone's emotional novel of a family's constantly fluctuating sum of its stubborn parts is translated with care and fluency by Pulitzer-winning Lahiri, who wrote her memoir, In Other Words (2016), in Italian.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

"In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife." Vanda writes this to her husband, Aldo, who hasn't come home for six days. It's Naples, 1974, and Aldo and Vanda married young, and now, when intellectuals have decided that "fidelity is a virtue of the petty bourgeoisie," they're stuck. Or she is: Aldo has found love and happiness, and stays gone for four years. We learn that in the second section of the book, its longest, narrated by Aldo after the apartment he and Vanda share has been broken into and trashed, their beloved cat disappeared. Although they reunited decades ago, Vanda and Aldo are still furious, and as he sorts through his demolished possessions, Aldo tells his side of the affair. The problem is that he tells and tells, displaying little self-awareness and seemingly expecting sympathy he may not have earned. Anna, Vanda and Aldo's daughter, middle-aged and scarred, like her feckless brother, by the breakup and the resumed marriage, is no picnic either-angry, manipulative, greedy. Though Starnone's willingness to let his characters-particularly Aldo-incriminate themselves can be read as writerly confidence, the novel, despite being slim, feels long. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Aside from fine writing and a relentless plot, this portrait of a marriage has lots recommending it. Starnone (First Execution) has claimed Italy's most prestigious literary honor, the Strega Prize; this book won the Bridge Prize, given jointly by the U.S. Embassy in Rome and the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC; and the translator is Pulitzer Prize winner Lahiri. The narrative opens as a cri de coeur from Vanda, abandoned by husband Aldo for a younger woman; leaps several decades to Aldo's reflections on why he left and why he returned four years later; and ends with the couple's adult children venting their spleen. The overly dramatic Vanda claims a need to understand, while the rather spineless Aldo reveals that he could not let go of the exhilaration born of new love, even as he saw he was hurting his family (what a lousy father). And though he cannot relinquish the past, Aldo also can't see himself in the scrawled letters he left from that time. VERDICT A scalding and incisive display of damage done and people missing their mark. © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Four years after leaving his wife and children, Aldo returns to them, ready to rebuild.Starnone's (First Execution, 2009, etc.) latest work begins with a bang: "In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes." So Vanda writes in a letter to her husband, Aldo, who's left her, and their children, for a younger woman. It's a familiar enough narrative, repeated often enough in Western literature and popular culture to seem clichd, banal even. But it's Starnone's exquisite artistry that sculpts this story into something much finer. The first portion of the slim book is taken up with Vanda's letters to Aldo, letters sent over the course of the years he is away from home. But the second section skips several decades ahead. Vanda and Aldo are together again. They have been away on holiday and, when they return, find their house ransacked: furniture overturned, glass broken, books and boxes of papers of all sorts scattered everywhere, trampled underfoot. It seems that thieves have been by in their absence. The break-in forces a kind of confrontation between Vanda and Aldo and the past they haven't spoken of in years. Starnone's work is subtle and nuanced, and, in Lahiri's elegant translation, his prose is fluid and clear. It is by no means comprehensive. You will not hear from all sides; you will hear hardly anything from Lidia, Aldo's "other woman," for example. The book is a snapshot, a sliver of a marriage. It is as vivid and devastating as anything you will read this year. A slim, stunning meditation on marriage, fidelity, honesty, and truth. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.