Three Light-Years by Andrea Canobbio (transl. Anne Milano Appel): A love story

Cover imageJacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal commented on my books to look out for in December post that Three Light-Years’ jacket seemed to fit its synopsis well: a grey, rainy day in which a woman is looking over her shoulder at a man, her expression a little solemn but unreadable. We can’t see his but it should be somewhat more puzzled than hers to really fit the book’s contents. Three Light-Years is a love story although not a conventional one: a novel about relationships in all their many permutations.

Claudio Viberti is a doctor, an internist specialising in geriatrics. His best friend works in paediatrics and it is here that he meets Cecilia, a doctor from A & E whose son is suffering from an eating disorder. Forty-three and still living in the same apartment building as his mother, his ex-wife and her new family, Viberti – as he is known – longs for a child. Distracting Mattia with a conversation about James Bond, he manages to get the boy to eat and so begins an odd relationship. Viberti will rarely see Mattia over the novel’s three-year span but he will have lunch with Cecilia almost every day: boiled vegetables for him, a sandwich for her. Their relationship progresses in fits and starts. Viberti soon knows that he’s in love with Cecilia but her feelings are more ambivalent. Her divorce is more recent than his and she’s consumed with worry about its effects on Mattia. Meanwhile, Viberti realises that his eighty-three-year-old mother may be demented but he and his ex-wife, still devoted to Marta, have very different ways of dealing with it. Into this convoluted relationship walks a third party, completely by accident: Cecilia’s sister, Silvia.

We know very early on that this subtle, often funny, sometimes infuriating love story is being told by Viberti’s son. He’s an unobtrusive narrator, popping up infrequently as if to remind us of his existence as Canobbio’s narrative shifts between Viberti, Cecilia, then Silvia, backwards and forwards over the three years. Canobbio – and his translator, Anne Milano Appel – has a sharp eye for striking phrases: ‘A man hidden behind a column, observing the world’ perfectly describes Viberti’s reserve as he looks out into the café hoping for a glimpse of Cecilia as does ‘guilt was the alimony Viberti paid to Giulia’. Family relationships with their usual complexities are made vivid through memories, a strong theme in the novel. There are times when you want to give Viberti and Cecilia a good shaking but the gentle humour with which Canobbio recounts their seemingly endless misunderstandings, angst ridden speculations and occasional connections, lightens the mood. Viberti is particularly well drawn – excruciatingly socially awkward, always wanting to do the right thing and often unsure of himself. Not one for those who want a conventional love story but I enjoyed it. Nicely ambivalent ending, too, much like life.

This is my last review for 2015. The rest of December will be taken up with books of the year – far too many as ever – looking forward to January and, of course, Christmas. Can’t be avoided, I’m afraid….

10 thoughts on “Three Light-Years by Andrea Canobbio (transl. Anne Milano Appel): A love story”

  1. The very unconventional-ness of this book is what makes me want to read it! Sounds like it has some good characters.
    Looking forward to your end-of-year posts!

    1. I wasn’t sure about it to begin with, Naomi, but it grew on me and you’re right, it’s all about the characters.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. It opens in 2002 so reasonably contemporary but that shot could almost be from a Italian neorealist film couldn’t it? Good choice from the publishers’ art team!

  2. I love the cover of this, not to be shallow….. as the book sounds most intriguing too. I do like a different sort of love story, so I’ll look out for this one!

    1. Oh, I think a cover is so important in giving you a flavour of the book, and in this case it actually works!

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