I wish for this intrusion, I’ve hoped for it ever since I began

The story of the lost childThe Story of the Lost Child
Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels: Maturity, Old Age
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

Next week Tim and I are heading to Campania for our holiday, specifically to Pompeii and Ischia – the island that features prominently in the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name – so this seemed like a good time to read the final part of the series.

This book details the final few decades of the friendship of Elena and Lila, from their early 30s to the moment that opens the series: when 60-something-year-old Elena hears that her oldest friend has gone missing. The backdrop to their friendship is the changing society and politics of Naples, and in particular their own neighbourhood, a rough place filled with corruption.
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Love…it means too much to me

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy
translated from Russian by Rosamund Bartlett

Phew, I made it to the end! This is a big book and it took me a month to read. But it wasn’t a slog. I found Tolstoy’s writing much more accessible than Dostoevsky or Dickens, his contemporaries.

I had a rough idea of the story before I started this book, but hadn’t realised that the story of Anna is not the only plotline. As its famous opening line suggests, the novel follows a few interlinked families, and Anna is not the focus of the first nor the last chapter. We open in Moscow with her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, who is in trouble with his wife, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly), after cheating on her with the nanny. Only the arrival of Anna from St Petersburg manages to calm the household down.

At the same time, Oblonsky’s close friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin has come to Moscow to propose to Dolly’s younger sister, Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), but unfortunately while he has been away at his country estate, Kitty has taken up a flirtation with Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dandy young cavalry officer from St Petersburg. In confusion between her two suitors, she turns Levin down. But just a few days later, at a society ball, Vronsky meets Anna and their mutual attraction is immediately obvious to all.

“It was as if tears were the essential lubricant without which the machinery of mutual relations between the two sisters could not operate effectively – after the tears the sisters did not talk about what preoccupied them, but they understood each other even though they were talking about other things. Kitty understood that she had deeply wounded her poor sister with those words she had uttered in a fit of pique…but that she was forgiven. For her part, Dolly understood all that she had wanted to know.”

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Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind

The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith

Way back in the mists of time – 2005, maybe? – I read The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith for an old book club. I enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over, so for a long time felt no urgency to try Highsmith again. This is despite one of my favourite films – Strangers on a Train – being based on a Highsmith book, not to mention regular mentions of her work by book bloggers whose taste I often share.

Finally, when the film Carol came out in 2015, based on this novel, the sudden rush of reviews of The Price of Salt persuaded me to give it a go. And I am so glad that I did. I loved this unreservedly and am eagerly adding more Highsmith novels to my wishlist now.

The story is told from the perspective of Therese, a young woman who, when the novel opens, is working in a New York City department store as a temporary Christmas job, though her ambition is to be a set designer. She sees Richard most days – an art student who she thinks of as her best friend and who thinks of her as his future wife. But that disparity doesn’t matter until the day Carol comes into the store. In their brief interaction, Therese is so bowled over that she immediately finds a way to get in touch with Carol, to instigate another meeting.

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He would name, classify and diagnose every nuance of the human soul

the_memory_of_love_by_aminatta_fornaThe Memory of Love
by Aminatta Forna

I can’t remember how this book made its way onto my TBR, but I picked it up thanks to the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo, which for me includes the square “Set in Africa”. If not for that I might have avoided this for a long time, expecting a dark, disturbing read. It’s not quite what I expected.

The book has dark, disturbing moments for sure. It is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, post civil war, pre Ebola, so approximately when it was written (this book was published in 2010 so presumably written in about 2008). The civil war is a scar for the native characters, creating a distance that can never be breached by the primary non-native character, a white British doctor.

Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist on secondment to Sierra Leone. It is his second assignment to Africa, and he spends much of the novel dwelling on his reasons for being there. He has a wife and daughter back home in England, but his marriage is failing and over the years he has lost the feeling that he is actually helping his patients.

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The unreliable measuring device of words

the story of a new nameThe Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is book two of the famed Neapolitan Novels, which started with My Brilliant Friend. This review does contain spoilers for the first book, which I also highly recommend. Arguably you could come to this book cold – everything you need to know from book one is repeated – but you’d be missing out on a key part of the experience in my opinion.

Elena and Lila are on the verge of adulthood. Married at 16, Lila is gradually realising that marriage is not a quick fix to make her brother rich, and that being married to someone she doesn’t love is fine until she does fall in love.

For Lila, marrying Stefano, the grocer, was supposed to be the lesser of two evils – her other rich suitor in book one being Marcello Solara – but either way Lila is tied up with the dangerous Solara family and not in the powerful position as one of their wives. Did she make the right choice? She spends frivolously and flirts with both Solara brothers despite her husband’s violent temper. Has she shut down all true feeling? She is smart and aware, surely she knows the dangerous ground she is treading?

“She was beautiful and she dressed like the pictures in the women’s magazines that she bought in great numbers. But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.”

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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There were silences as murmurous as sound

beautiful-damnedThe Beautiful and Damned
by F Scott Fitzgerald

I love the way Fitzgerald writes, but his books sure are depressing. This book lives up to the title and to its reputation as Fitzgerald’s most pessimistic work. I started the book wondering why it’s so long since I last read Fitzgerald but by the end I’d decided long breaks in-between are necessary for my sanity.

It is the story of Anthony and Gloria. They are the young and the beautiful, the idle rich. Anthony is expecting to inherit billions on the death of his grandfather, so he spends his allowance frivolously on himself, his friends, girls. Gloria dates eligible bachelor after eligible bachelor, sometimes even getting engaged, but never staying with one man for long enough to fall in love. They of course fall for each other, but is it really love or is it a shared appreciation for the same carefree lifestyle?

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Lovers communicate not inside sentences but between them

post-birthday-worldThe Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver

I have to try very hard to separate the prose of this book from its politics – and those of its author – because I quite liked the book but it was decidedly tainted for me by the occasional political comment. There was one short section of what can only be described as lies about the NHS that got me so mad I very seriously considered stopping reading then and there, despite it being more than 400 pages in.

Politics aside, this is an enjoyable enough, reasonably well written story that kept me interested and got me looking at my own life through a new filter, which is generally a good sign. I don’t find its central conceit as mindblowingly original as those reviewers quoted on the cover (it is, after all, straight out of Sliding Doors, a film I’ve watched many many times) but it is done well and I like that Shriver didn’t make obvious choices but kept it subtle.

Irina and Lawrence are an American ex-pat couple living a comfortable, if bland, life together in London. After nine years, and now in their 40s, they are very much set in their ways and their future seems obvious. But one night, Irina finds herself unexpectedly attracted to another man almost the opposite of Lawrence. Whether or not she kisses Ramsey is the question on which the rest of the book turns – because both answers are given, with two stories told from that point on.

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Leaving behind me a thousand little phantoms in my image

vagabondThe Vagabond
by Colette
translated from French by Enid McLeod

I love Colette. This slim, seemingly simple novel is beautifully told and explores in great detail the psychological weight of the decisions we make.

Renée is a music-hall dancer in Paris. Divorced and in her 30s, she has to perform in seedy venues late at night to pay her rent but she doesn’t mind that. In fact, she quite enjoys it, though it does give her a great fear of getting old, knowing as she does that it is her looks and not her talent that the crowds are attracted to. For now she has an agent who keeps her in work and a regular partner called Brague, a mime who designs and choreographs their act.

“Behold me then, just as I am! This evening I shall not be able to escape the meeting in the long mirror, the soliloquy which I have a hundred times avoided, accepted, fled from, taken up again, and broken off…Behold me then, just as I am! Alone, alone, and for the rest of my life, no doubt. Already alone; it’s early for that.”

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