Ties by Domenico Starnone (transl. Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover image I seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.

11 thoughts on “Ties by Domenico Starnone (transl. Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage”

    1. She’s written an introduction, Claire, which gives you a sense of how she’s set about the translation and what led her to it but there’s no sense of her own style here which is just how it should be.

    1. I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction and was fascinated by her account of immersing herself in the Italian language so was keen to read her first piece of translation. It’s quite a touch piece of work to start with, I imagine, as the three narrative strands have very different tones. Hope you enjoy First Love, Resh.

  1. Sounds like an excellent read. The Italians seem able to do frustrated, angry love in a way no one else can. As I was reading the description there were echoes of Days of Abandonment, though I suspect they are really quite different books. Interesting that Lahiri has turned her hand to translation.

    1. I’m not a Ferrante fan, Belinda, but interestingly this is from the same publisher. Lahiri’s memoir on her immersion in the Italian language is fascinating, a passion that took over her life.

  2. I don’t know what I would do without you – lately I’ve been getting so many good book ideas for the Literary Wives club. This one sounds like another good possibility!

    1. I thought of you when reading this one, Naomi. I’m not sure if it’s me or if it’s a trend sweeping through publishing but here does seem to be a plethora of good novels out there about marriage and relationships recently. Proper grown up ones too!

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