(Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein)
Rating: 3 Stars
Milena Agus’ enticing little novel was an award-winner in her native Italy, before going on to become a European best-seller. It has the magic, yearning, and bitter-sweetness of ‘the principal thing’ that is its subject – Love.
Most of the characters in the book are unnamed. The narrator, a young woman, tells the story of her grandmother, interspersed with recollections of her own mother and father, and her extended family. The grandmother was the despair of her parents – having no marriage prospects at the venerable age of thirty; having scandalized the villagers with her inappropriately passionate poetry to any young man who shows casual interest in her; and, in fact causing others to doubt her sanity. The parents gratefully accept the offer of marriage from an out-of-town widower who is taking shelter with them during the time of Nazi-occupied Italy.
Grandmother, however, was not over-whelmed by the proposal. It is not marriage she seeks. What this wildly romantic woman craves is Love. She resigns herself to the inevitable as best as she can, coming to some terms of agreement with Grandfather. But her life is changed forever when she goes for a medical treatment at a spa, and meets a fellow convalescent – the Veteran.
This slim novel raises a lot of weighty questions. How do we know it’s Love if it doesn’t match our concept of Love? If we don’t know, will we miss it when it’s staring us right in the face? Not recognizing it for what it is, are we to be engaged in a futile quest for what we already have? Or do we waste away longing for a mirage, when life is beckoning us with all its robustness?
The book’s surprising, revelatory conclusion clears existing doubts, but raises a host of new ones in the process. With its vivid characterization and lush, erotic style, it evokes la dolce vita that we’ve come to associate with Italy.