Okay, I admit to being drawn to this title primarily because it was translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, an author I have admired a great deal who recently took to Italy and Italian and, obviously, translation. I enjoy her work, I enjoy her perspective, I hoped to enjoy her taste and her abilities to present something she loves to me in English. Knowing nothing else about the book, I began Domenico Starnone’s Ties. I’m so glad I did.
Ties is organized into three parts. Part One is a series of letters from a wife to the husband who has abandoned her and her two children in order to seek whatever he thinks his true passion in life is. In this case, a young woman, a nineteen-year-young woman, to his thirty four years. The letters begin with pleading. Apparently the husband has only recently strayed, and the wife is hoping he’ll return soon:
Enough, sorry, I’m going overboard. I know you, I know you’re a decent person. But please, as soon as you read this letter, come home. Or, if you still aren’t up to it, write to me and explain what you’re going through.
However, as the letters go on, they understandably become angrier, less interested in making up, more interested in punishing, if possible, in making him feel the pain he’s caused. Finally, we get to the final letters. It’s apparent that a few years have passed. The children are older now, and he’s given up custody. Nevertheless, he wants to meet them again: “They’re crushed by uncertainty and fear. Don’t make it worse for them,” she says.
Nevertheless, when Part Two begins we suddenly find the husband and wife back together. What we get now is a portrait of the couple a few decades removed from this period of pain and bitterness. Here we learn the characters’ names: Vanda is the wife, and her husband is Aldo. This part, though not told in letters, is told from the perspective of Aldo. They’re in their seventies, now. They’ve been married for 52 years, and here we find them one day, their reunion taken for granted, their marriage built on routine. But is there trust?
The remainder of the second part explores how, decades later, those years of infidelity and grief still flow underneath it all. It can still be a source of pain, and it can still be used as a weapon. In Part Three, we hear from the two children, now late in life themselves, also still feeling the effects of this strange family they’re tied to.
And I think that’s where Ties really excels. I think the writing is great, and it flows nicely through its scenes, but the power is in its exploration of intimacy — all the trust, the fear, the hope — when it’s under siege, when those closest to us have the ability to cause us the most pain, and they’re doing it.
Ties is a short book, and its pages speed past quickly, the emotions of each character nicely developed, the characters unlikeable but recognizable and all too human. If you’re a fan of Lahiri’s brilliant story “A Temporary Matter,” be prepared for some of the same painful glimpse at broken hearts.