The Temptation to be Happy: Lorenzo Marone

★★★

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.

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The Story of a New Name: Elena Ferrante

★★★★ ½

The Neapolitan Novels: Book II

The first installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels moved me deeply and there was no doubt I’d continue with the series. For various reasons this week has been challenging and so yesterday afternoon, on a whim, I bought the second book and have spent a few hours here and there absorbed afresh in Ferrante’s compelling world, by turns painfully familiar and shockingly alien. As in the first novel, the characters have a presence and reality which means one can’t comfortably dismiss them as fictional. Once again, this book has the charge of thinly fictionalised autobiography: nostalgic, fearless and merciless, a forensic dissection of the anatomy of friendship.

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My Brilliant Friend: Elena Ferrante

★★★★

About a month ago, several people recommended that I should read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Then my local bookshop devoted a window display to her, so it seemed a good time to plunge in. The novels follow the friendship between two women, the narrator Elena and Raffaella, whom Elena calls Lila. Throughout the course of the series I imagine we’ll cover most of the second half of the 20th century, but this first book sets the scene with the story of their childhood and adolescence in a modest, run-down suburb of Naples.

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Black Opera: Mary Gentle

★★★

Conrad Scalese is in trouble. It’s around the year 1830 and we meet him in Naples on the morning after he’s watched his new opera Il terrore di Parigi enjoy a stellar success at the Teatro Nuovo. Until just a few hours ago, security, fame and fortune as a librettist beckoned. But since he’s woken up everything has gone wrong. He has a crippling migraine. It turns out that the Teatro Nuovo has been struck by a freak blast of lightning and burned to the ground. People are blaming him for calling down the wrath of God. And the Inquisition are at the door. But all this is just the beginning.

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The Volcano Lover: Susan Sontag

★★★★

The man known as the Cavaliere is the British Ambassador in Naples. Refined and courtly, he is a connoisseur of the beautiful, the antique and the imposing. He collects whatever he can – paintings, statues, vases, antiquities acquired legally and illegally from the newly-discovered sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum – and he interests himself in all that is methodical, scientific and educational. But nothing fascinates him as much as the volcano, Vesuvius, which towers over the colourful city which has become his home.

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