Still, I'm going to try crossing a few titles off my Must-Blog-About list, and since we'll be heading to Italy in October (to see these much-missed lovelies), I think I'll start with some books set in that country.
First, to whet your appetite for the country, especially for its food, the blogger Elizabeth Minchilli has put together a gorgeous book that stirs together Italy's history, geography, and rich culture through its restaurant and household kitchens and dining tables. Our first three-day visit to Rome was something of a disappointment, foodie-wise, partly because we came there from Puglia (which offered simple, but amazingly good, food) and partly because we simply hadn't prepared and serendipity only struck once). In October, of course, we'll have our daughter and our son-in-law to guide us, with their six months' experience as residents of Rome, but now we'll also have a list of various eating establishments with Minchilli's tips on what each does best, on times to visit, on particular favourite dishes -- and all of this at a range of price points.
I also enjoyed reading of her personal connection with Rome, stretching back to her first visit there when her parents rather spontaneously uprooted Minchilli and her sisters (roughly adolescent or nearing, age-wise) from suburban St. Louis. Culture shock was, apparently, easily mitigated through food, and although the family moved back to the states after two years in Italy, they spent summer vacations in their adopted country. Then Minchilli met her Italian husband when she was in Florence working on her dissertation in Renaissance Garden Architecure and with him, a very good reason for cooking Italian for the rest of her life. She folds favourite family recipes into the memoir part of the book as well as anecdotes about favourite restaurants and shopping haunts. I've found the book satisfying on those numerous levels: as memoir, as travel guide, and as a cookbook. Pater's enjoyed it as well -- it's one of the titles I've read to him as he prepares dinner and we both sip a glass of wine. . .
The second title I'll cross off my list by mentioning it here is David Hewson's A Season for the Dead.
Quite honestly, if you don't look your murder mysteries too gruesome or graphic, this won't be your cup of tea. But Hewson writes well, and (my reason for downloading his book) he seems to know Rome well, not just the various streets and neighbourhoods, but also its art history and the machinations of the various political forces within its complicated layers -- Church, State, and Mafia, just for a start. Hewson creates some interesting characters, and I'd be pleased to meet at least one or two of them again between different covers. Not sure I'm convinced by the final plot twist, but that may be because . . . No, no, no, I'd better not say anymore because you might want to read this one.
And finally, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels,
the 1st, My Brilliant Friend which I wrote a bit about here,
the 2nd, The Story of a New Name, which picks up the narrative with Elena describing Lila's marriage, Lila's wedding having closed the first novel. Neither young woman is yet out of her late teens, but the options for any other way out of the parental homes and toward any kind of independent life are very limited in their poor Neapolitan neighbourhood. And although Elena is quick to recognize the new constraints Lila is living under, her friend's achievement of the "Mrs." title casts her own academic progress in a lesser light.
For me, the series' brilliance is in its offering of a very specific friendship with very particular, compelling intimacies and rivalries and betrayals and loyalties that nonetheless somehow point to general, recognizable truths, phenomena at least, about female friendships, at least as they developed within a particular kind of patriarchy and class system. Elena and Lila are flip sides of a coin stamped Brilliant Young Woman, but they each ascribe to the other characteristics they are convinced of lacking themselves. And at various times, each resents the other for what she has or achieves or is bold enough to undertake, yet admits to an intense investment in seeing the other succeed. Because Elena narrates the story through her filter of rather continual self-deprecation, we tend to see Lila as the truly "brilliant" friend, but the tale is more complicated than such a reading would admit.
This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and the end of 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page; and it's done. (The Story of a New Name, 336)
An added, and central, complication, especially from about the middle of The Story of a New Name, and throughout the third Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is the history of post-war Italy, particularly its economic and political history with, of course, enormous social ramifications. As Elena's education takes her out of her neighbourhood and lets her lift her head, occasionally, above her own class for a view around the country, she is exposed to the student movement sweeping Europe in the 60s. Without giving too much away, I will tell you that her education is paralleled by Lila's experience with working-class poverty, and that their paths converge in a narrative that reveals the limitations of the tumultuous energies of that time for dealing with powerful resistance of an intimidating and enduring alliance of organized crime and Fascism. Interestingly, religion doesn't play a particularly noticeable part except in setting out and/or reinforcing the patriarchy that the two young women don't even realize, for far too long, as a factor.
But tools for thinking about gender do arrive, for Elena at least, with her own move into marriage and motherhood. She joins nascent feminist consciousness-raising groups which at least offer solidarity, but which frustrate her in their chaotic, often amorphous, approach. Again, I'm reluctant to give away too much, but I will say that volume 3, especially, contrasts the bourgeois, educated, yet left-leaning, class who pride themselves on their generous (and paternalistic) liberalism with the poor workers for whom such leftist politics are, however promising in the long term, an idealistic and dangerous indulgence. Playing this contrast out through the respective potential of two women (and their children, the next generation's promise) from the same neighbourhood brings this post-war history of Italy (and, really, of much of Europe and, in turn, of North America) into a fascinating relief.
I could write so much more, particularly about the way men figure in these women's hopes and dreams and fantasies, how they offer alternative narratives that should be more suspect, given the romantic limitations the girls see in their mothers' lives. One young man, in particular, exerts a gravitational pull with a disturbing effect on both Elena's and Lila's lives. Book 3 closes on a pivotal moment in Elena's life wherein she responds to this pull, as has Lila before her. How many readers now, as I am, are waiting for Book 4's release this fall to find out where this pivot will take Elena. Somehow, we suppose, the final volume will take us back to the instance of writing with which the first book began, with both women in their 60s, in the present, Elena writing after Lila's disappearance. . . For now, I can only wait patiently, but you, many of you still have the pleasure of the first three novels ahead. I highly recommend them, and I'd love to chat about them when you do. Apologies for such a cursory look at them, but let's just say we're done with them yet!
And as a small atonement for such a cursory review, let me copy out another passage for you to read. Like the short passage above, this comes from the second volume, Story of a New Name, specifically from the time in Elena's life when she's left Naples to go to university in Pisa. Homesick and shy at first, very aware of her poverty, her Neapolitan dialect, within the year she finds herself fitting in socially and within a year, one of the most promising students. Still, student life wasn't easy. She worked hard for both her grades and her social acceptance, and the passage that struck me shows some of the difficulties she confronted regularly. It describes her response to the sartorial problem posed by "a sort of dance for the first-year students that everyone essentially had to attend. . . . a great moment of intimacy between the university's male and female divisions"
The problem is that Elena
had nothing to wear: It was cold that autumn; it snowed a lot, and the snow enchanted me. But then I discovered how troublesome the ice in the streets could be., hands that, without gloves, turned numb, feet with chilblains. My wardrobe consisted of two winter dresses made by my mother a couple of years earlier, a worn coat inherited from an aunt, a big blue scarf that I had made myself, a single pair of shoes, with a half heel, that had been resoled many times. I had enough problems with my clothes. I didn't know how to deal with that party. Ask my classmates? Most of them were having dresses made just for the occasion, and it was likely that they had something among their everyday clothes that would have been fine for me. But after my experience with Lila I couldn't bear the idea of trying on someone else's clothes and discovering that they didn't fit. Pretend to be sick? I was tempted by that solution but it depressed me to be healthy, and desperate to be a Natasha at the ball with Prince Andrei or Kuryagin, and instead to be sitting alone, staring at the ceiling, while listening to the echo of the music, the sound of voices, the laughter. In the end I made a choice that was probably humiliating but that I was sure I wouldn't regret: I washed my hair, put it up, put on some lipstick, and wore one of my two dresses, the one whose only merit was that it was dark blue.
I went to the party, and at first I felt uncomfortable. But my outfit had the advantage of not arousing envy; rather, it produced a sense of guilt that encouraged camaraderie. In fact many sympathetic girls kept me company and the boys often asked me to dance. I forgot how I was dressed and even the state of my shoes. Besides, that night I met Franco Mari, a rather ugly but very amusing boy with a quick intelligence, insolent and profligate. (334)