I was tempted by this book because I thought it was going to be another heartwarming tale along the lines of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen or My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, but in fact it was a little harder and more cynical than I was expecting. It’s the tale of Cesare Annunziata, a grumpy old man in Naples, who has lost his wife, alienated his children and failed to make the most of his life. When a young couple move into the flat next door, Cesare plans to remain just as detached and crabby as ever. But fate has other plans, and this miserable old sod finds that, quite against his will, he’s beginning to feel an emotional investment in his new neighbour Emma.
As Cesare warms to his young neighbour, he begins to reassess his relationships with his own children: his brittle, unhappy daughter Sveva, who looks set to repeat so many of Cesare’s mistakes, and his son Dante, who is the most emotionally successful member of the family, but who has never dared come out to his crotchety father. Forty years of distant parenting can’t be overcome in a trice, but Cesare increasingly begins to realise the importance of having others there – and not just family, but lovers and friends too.
This all sounds a tiny bit saccharine, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. Cesare is definitely not the stereotypical cantankerous but cuddly old grandfather. He’s a hard man, selfish and self-centred, intolerant of weakness, impatient and, in many ways, unpleasant. He’s lustful and arrogant and a touch mischievous (though I don’t see this last as a negative trait). But perhaps this complex personality makes him more believable than the peevish old fellows with hearts of gold that I’ve read about before; even if I felt fonder of them. Cesare is a self-professed philanderer, who thrives on the thrill of the chase and who quickly tired of his late wife, before embarking on a series of quick-fix flings. Even now, in his late seventies, he regularly visits his former nurse Rossana, with whom he has a discreet financial arrangement. But, as Cesare opens his eyes to events in his own family, he realises that history is in danger of repeating itself, and perhaps he has the ability to – finally – make things better.
Marone’s novel is as prickly and inscrutable as Naples, where it’s set; but, although the city is often namechecked, it doesn’t feel quite as present as it does, for example, in Elena Ferrante’s novels, which simply couldn’t be set anywhere else. For all that, it does feel distinctly Italian, with its thin-walled apartments, gossips, old friendships, womanising paterfamilias, and concern to fare una bella figura. With its tragic substratum, which gives the novel a bitter sting in the tail, it isn’t quite as cosy as one might expect, but perhaps that makes it more bitterly believable.
This is a strong addition to the geriatric-lit subgenre, and a welcome reminder that men don’t switch at a certain age to be lovable old fellows who think of nothing but slippers and reading bedtime stories to children. On the contrary, inside every seventy-year-old, there’s almost certainly an eighteen-year-old wondering what the hell has gone wrong with the mirror.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review