I received this book for review consideration from the publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers. All opinions are my own.Like Family
Written by Paolo Giordano
Published by Pamela Dorman Books on December 1st 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Psychological, Family Life
From the author of the international bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers, an exquisite portrait of marriage, adulthood, and the meaning of family Paolo Giordano’s prizewinning debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, catapulted the young Italian author into the literary spotlight. His new novel features his trademark character-driven narrative and intimate domestic setting that first made him an international sensation. When Signora A first enters the narrator’s home, his wife, Nora, is experiencing a difficult pregnancy. First as their maid and nanny, then their confidante, this older woman begins to help her employers negotiate married life, quickly becoming the glue in their small household. She is the steady, maternal influence for both husband and wife, and their son, Emanuele, whom she protects from his parents’ expectations and disappointments. But the family’s delicate fabric comes undone when Signora A is diagnosed with cancer. Moving seamlessly between the past and present, Giordano highlights with remarkable precision the joy of youth and the fleeting nature of time. An elegiac, heartrending, and deeply personal portrait of marriage and the people we choose to call family, this is a jewel of a novel—short, intense, and unforgettable.
An advance copy of this book was provided by Shelf Awareness to facilitate a compensated review. Because the submission deadline was missed, this review has not been previously published and was not compensated.
I received Paolo Giordano’s novella Like Family for review consideration from Shelf Awareness. Already published in the author’s native Italy, an English-language edition, translated by Anne Milano Appel, was released in the US in early December of 2015. I missed the review submission deadline. I hadn’t finished reading the book by its publication date; I didn’t finish this slender volume until more than a month after the pub date. I’m pretty sure it’s an “it’s not you, it’s me” thing, because this little book has been highly praised, but despite spending over two months with Like Family, I don’t find I have a lot to say about it myself.
Like Family is summarized on premise more than plot: a family of three struggles with the impact of losing their longtime nanny/caretaker to cancer. I like how the translator puts it:
“(F)families can also suffer from loneliness, just like people. Besides looking after their child, Mrs. A. has always been the one who silently addressed all their uncertainties. (F)rom the moment she enters the scene as housekeeper, she becomes the custodian of a relationship, a compass by which the couple may orient itself in calm or stormy seas. With her slippers lined up beside the door, the shopping receipts exact to the penny, her commandeering of the kitchen, and the few treasured objects of her secret life, she is portrayed as solid, obstinate, magical, unshakeable. Which is why, when an illness comes to take her away, an unexpected emptiness creates a void in the small family. Nora and her husband have yet to realize that Mrs. A.’s strength is now a part of them.”
The woman, always identified as “Mrs. A.,” joined the narrator’s household during his wife Nora’s difficult pregnancy and remained to help manage the couple’s home and raise their son, Emanuele, until she got sick. She lived as part of their family for years, but she wasn’t actually related. How does one process and respond to the death of someone who has been such an intimate part of one’s life, yet was never truly acknowledged as an intimate?
Giordano explores that question without really answering it, and that seems appropriate. Like Family is a novel of moving through grief rather than one about moving on from it–his characters haven’t found their answers yet.
My real problem in collecting my thoughts about Like Family may be that I spent too little time, spread over too much time, with this novella. I suspect readers who can absorb it in just a few sittings may find it much more intense and affecting.
From Chapter One:
“On my thirty-fifth birthday, Mrs. A. abruptly gave up the determination that in my eyes characterized her more than any other quality and, already laid out in a bed that by then seemed too big for her body, finally abandoned the world we all know.
“That morning I had gone to the airport to pick up Nora, back from a brief business trip. Though it was late December, winter was dragging its feet, and the monotonous stretches at the sides of the highway were whitened by a thin layer of fog, as if to suggest the snow that couldn’t make up its mind to fall. Nora answered the phone, after which she didn’t say much, just sat there listening. ‘I see,’ she said, ‘all right, Tuesday,’ and then she added one of those sentences that experience provides us with when there are no adequate words: ‘Maybe it’s better that way.’
“I pulled off into the first service area to allow her to get out of the car and pace aimlessly around the parking lot by herself. She wept quietly, her right hand clamped over her mouth and nose. Among the countless things I’ve learned about my wife in ten years of marriage is her habit of isolating herself in times of grief. She suddenly becomes unreachable and won’t allow anyone to console her, forcing me to remain a useless spectator to her suffering—a rejection that I sometimes interpreted as a lack of generosity.
“For the rest of the way, I drove more slowly; it seemed like a form of respect. We spoke about Mrs. A., recalling some anecdotes from the past, although for the most part they weren’t really anecdotes—we didn’t know much about her—just routines. Routines so rooted in our family life that to us they seemed almost legendary: the reliability with which she updated us each morning on the horoscope she’d heard on the radio while we were still asleep; her way of taking over certain rooms of the house, especially the kitchen, so that we felt we should ask her permission to open our own refrigerator; the proverbs with which she curtailed what to her were unnecessary complications created by us young people; her military, masculine step and her incorrigible tightfistedness—remember the time we forgot to leave her money for the shopping? She emptied the jar of pennies, scraping up each and every one of the coins.
“After a moment or two of silence, Nora added, ‘What a woman, though! Our Babette. Always there for us. Even this time she waited for me to get back.’”