Author: Domenico Starnone

Publisher: Europa Editions

ISBN: 978-1-60945=385-5

What can we learn from a failing—failed—marriage?

A great deal when the tensions and stresses and cracks are as clearly explicated at they are in Domenico Starone's short novel, Ties, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. 

When the novel begins, Aldo and Vanda in their early 30s have been married for a dozen years. They have two children, Sandro and Anna, and live comfortably enough in Naples. Aldo commutes weekly to his job as an academic/writer/television personality in Rome.

Where Aldo has fallen in love with and is sleeping with a delightful, sexy, nineteen-year-old, Lidia, who accepts him as he is—married with children. 

Section I of Ties is a series of letters Vanda writes to Aldo in growing fury and desperation in her attempts to shame him (?), encourage him (?), threaten him (?) to abandon Lidia, to return to the marriage bed, to the family. The novel begins, "In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes . . ."

In Section II, forty years after Aldo has returned to Vanda, he reflects on the period when the letters were written: "I certainly didn't hate my wife, I hadn't built up any resentment toward her, I loved her. I'd thought it was pleasantly adventurous to get married when I was so young, before graduating, without a job. I'd felt I was cutting away my father's hold over me and that I was finally in charge of my own life . . . "

It is difficult to write about Ties because part of the pleasure is the book's structure, the way each section grows out of the one before, the way every detail adds to the story and I don't want to give anything away. In her Introduction, Lahiri writes: "The entire structure of this novel, in fact, seems to me a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next. There is no hole in the construction, no fissure. No detail has escaped the author's attention, like the home of Aldo and Vanda . . . everything is in place neat as a pin."

Until it's not.

It seems to me that, although Ties is set in contemporary Italy, the story is not uncommon, almost banal: two young people marry, have children, and grow apart so that by their thirties they are dissatisfied with their spouses, their children, their lives, or all three and are vulnerable to a new, more fulfilling love. The issue is then what do they do about it? Starone has one answer that conveys not only the troubled marriage but also suggests with literary art and craft the consequences. 

Aldo and Vanda may have had a troubled marriage, but Ties is a rewarding novel.