Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

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12 thoughts on “Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. Interesting review, Claire. As one of the few female bloggers who didn’t get on with Ferrante, I came fresh to Ties, attracted partly because it’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation work. I found the differing perspectives convincing although I felt the novella was incomplete without Sandro’s, Anna’s brother. I wonder if I would have had a different reaction to it if I’d read Days of Abandonment.

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    • Well I had no idea there was any connection when I started this, it was more that I found myself in the same apartment and the similarities (though not the voice) jumped right out at me, as I’m sure they would have done for anyone who’d recently read The Days of Abandonment, which is quite a different read to the tetralogy.

      These books are the yin and yang of infidelity, separate but a part of each other.

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  2. It is nice to read the connections you found between Elena Ferrante’s book and Ties. Comparing makes the read more worthwhile. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that both the novels have similar tones?

    I was really disappointed that Elena Ferrante’s identity was unearthed by a journalist last year. I did not think that was ethical since she wanted to remain anonymous. Ferrante’s real name is Anita Raja. So your first speculation is not right. But Domenico might be married/related to her, I don’t know.

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  3. Always appreciate your recommendations . . . and of course am especially curious about Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation after reading her piece in the New Yorker re: learning to read and write in Italian. And, of course, everything Elena Ferrante writes interests me. A good pairing here — but that’s no surprise 😉

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  4. What an intriguing review. It makes me want to read the book even more, and to put in another request at the library for Days of Abandonment (I requested it over a year ago, but it didn’t ever come in.).

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    • Oh yes, you definitely must read The Days of Abandonment, and I would suggest you read that before Ties. I decided to go ahead and read Elena Ferrante’s new collection of letters and essays/interview, Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey next, intrigued as I was by what this novel provoked in me. Just brilliant, now I want to read her debut Troubling Love as well.

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  5. The Days of Abandonment is the only Ferrante novel I have been able to read from start to finish. Possibly because it is focussed on the main character and what she goes through (no friends here as in The Neopolitan Quartet for instance) I found Troubling Love too difficult a
    read and had to give up after 25%. Will attempt Ties after reading your review!

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    • Oh, I’m going to try with Troubling Love, it sounds like a challenging read, but I’m too curious after reading Frantumaglia and all the references to it, the book that got her into publication and on the writing journey, though interesting that she didn’t publish another book for ten years.

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