In preparation for my trip this past summer, I knew that Elena Ferrante (the alias of a bestselling Italian author whose identity remains a unknown) was at the top of my list of Italian authors to check out. My Brilliant Friend narrowed my choices down even further: it’s set in Naples and is the first book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy (the last book in the trilogy was recently published). Once I actually got to Naples, it was so easy to imagine the characters in this book come to life in Ferrante’s world.
Set in the 1950s in an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, My Brilliant Friend is a meditation on female friendship. Elena and Lila are unlikely best friends; both are smart but poor. Lila especially has an unnaturally sharp intelligence that sets her apart from her peers, but her background and attitude hold her back. Since people had to pay to keep attending classes through high school, Lila’s parents simply refuse to keep sending her. Elena’s parents are shamed into coming up with the money to keep Elena in school, so the girls’ paths start to diverge, but they keep coming back to each other even though their lives start to take on very different shapes.
Fortunata Fortuna is left reeling following the breakup of a long-term relationship.She and her boyfriend had been having a rough time, but “Nata” still felt blindsided when she was dumped and left with vague reasons for Beto’s sudden departure. She always held out some hope that Beto would see the error of his ways and come back to her. In the meantime, she goes through plenty of grief and therapy and frequently imagines — as per the book’s title — extensive scenarios that involve Beto’s return (or, at the very least, presence).
Nata eventually tries to get a grip and forces herself to go out and try dating again, to mixed results. In the meantime, life keeps going: the place where she works is facing major layoffs and her friends, some of whom seem like solid couples, are also suddenly finding themselves in the midst of major breakups. Nata gets to see it all, and none of her friends seems to fall apart as much as she did (in fact, one of her friends reacts to being dumped and cheated on with such certain, cold indifference towards her recent ex that everyone is left in awe of her exquisite badassery).
After being introduced to Thrity Umrigar via her last novel, The World We Found, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her latest book (neither could my mom, who promptly swiped my copy). The Story Hour hooks you from the beginning. Lakshmi, an uneducated immigrant woman from Indian who’s trapped in a loveless marriage, narrates her side of this story in broken English. She’s depressed and so desperately lonely that she tries to commit suicide. This event introduces her to the other narrator of the story, Maggie, the psychologist assigned to break through Lakshmi’s stony silence.
It’s a culture shock for Lakshmi, who has never interacted with an African American woman before. Meanwhile, this new assignment is somewhat of an annoyance to Maggie, who feels she was given Lakshmi’s case just because she’s married to a man from India. But the more the two talk to each other, the more each woman begins to change. For the first time in her professional career, Maggie feels like Lakshmi is getting under her skin somehow; she’s more drawn into Lakshmi’s story than she should be as a psychologist. Lakshmi doesn’t fully grasp the concept of therapy even though she knows that Maggie is trying to help her. She goes to Maggie’s house every week because that’s where Maggie’s practice is located, but so for Lakshmi, divulging her life to Maggie during this hour seems more like the beginning of a friendship rather than some kind of treatment.
Inevitably, that doctor-patient wall does come down. And I can’t say much more than that, because STUFF. HAPPENS.
The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Publisher/Year: Penguin, 2010
What it is: While he’s on assignment with a colleague, a journalist named Vatanen realizes he’s tired of his life. The two hit a hare while driving down a road in the middle of nowhere, and Vatanen gets out of the car walks into the woods to check on the hare. He finds it, but rather than returning to the car, he prefers to stay on his own and walks off on a year-long journey around Finland with the hare. Meanwhile, his wife and co-workers have no idea where he went.
Why I read it: I was looking for a book by a Finnish author in preparation for my trip. This one won out because it includes a stop in Helsinki, where I had a day-long layover.
What I thought: This is one of those cases of, “It’s not you, it’s me.” This book is an international bestseller. It’s charming and distinctly Scandinavian. But more than anything, this book brought Anton Checkov’s Dead Souls to mind because of the humor and over-the-top scenarios. Mix that in with a small pinch of some Confederacy of the Dunces humor, plus a solid dose of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and you have this book. And the thing is, I liked those first two books — sometimes a lot — but I could only take them in small doses. Same here.
I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron
Publisher/Year: Vintage, 2011
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A collection of memoir-ish essays — some of them very very short — about getting older.
Why I read it: I love Nora. She was great. I had this book for a long time and went back and forth on reading it when she passed away, but I ultimately held off. I read this on my flight back to the U.S. this summer.
What I thought: There were some essays in this collection that I really loved, including one that gave an interesting little back story related to When Harry Met Sally. I liked the humor and I’ll admit to liking the name-dropping. But. For such a short book, it pains me that the collection as a whole was so uneven! For every essay I loved, there were one (or two) throwaways that were either kind of pointless or just…dumb. It’s like she had half a solid book and then had to dig around for some filler. And that makes me sad because this was her last book.
Richard and Anne-Laure have been married for seven years and are now living in Paris with their young daughter. Anne-Laure’s friends warned her that something might happen around the seven-year mark, but she never believed it; she’s blindsided to learn that Richard has been having an affair. The discovery comes at an inopportune time for Richard, whose lover has just left him and moved to London with her fiance. Now he’s without his mistress, whom he shamelessly pines for, and without his family; Anne-Laure plays the role of happy wife in public while she figures out the next move, but she wants nothing to do with Richard behind closed doors.
Richard is an artist who has given up edgier art in favor of commercial success, and during his most successful show yet, he sells a painting that he once made for Anne-Laure that captured a special time in their lives. He immediately regrets this decision, although it becomes the catalyst for making him truly understand all that he has to lose. He desperately tries to win Anne-Laure back, but by then it looks like it’s too late: she’s just discovered the actual scope of his affair. It isn’t long before both sides of their family know what Richard has done.