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Like Family

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Fiction
  • by: Paolo Giordano
  • Translated From: Italian
  • by: Anne Milano Appel
  • Date Published: December 2015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-525-42876-3
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Pages: 146pp
  • Price: $22.00
  • Review by: Olive Mullet
Italian novelist Paolo Giordano’s novella Like Family, in spite of its short length, encapsulates as much of life as his well-known novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers. His previous career as a physicist shows up in both works, while in this one, he is married with a small child employing a housekeeper. As the husband, father, and employer, he is the unnamed narrator in the story. The housekeeper, a central character, is also the child’s caretaker and confidante to the couple. The housekeeper is a middle-aged widow whom the narrator refers to Mrs. A while at the same time being named Babette by the couple (after the Karen Blixen story and film about a woman who prepares a fabulous feast to strict, frugal northerners). We do not know the housekeeper’s real name until the very end, which is important: she is family to the couple but they barely know her.

Going back and forth in time, this story is nostalgic as the narrator (aged 35 when Mrs. A dies) relives their time with her. Although his wife Nora uses the housekeeper as confidante, the narrator with his analytical skills is best to narrate this story. Giordano reveals that he himself had such a housekeeper, a revelation that might explain why this novel’s narrator is not given a name, and why the narrator wonders how his young son Emmanuele will remember Mrs. A.

More than the family’s relationship with Mrs. A, this is also the story of a mismatched couple. The novel’s original title is The Black and the Silver, he being the black, literally taken out of the shadows of his studies into life, and she the stronger, molten silver.
For a long time, I was sure that Nora’s silver and my black were slowly blending together and that the same burnished metallic fluid would eventually course through both of us . . . I was wrong. We were wrong. Life sometimes narrows like a funnel, and the initial emulsion of the tumors produces layers. Nora’s exuberance and my melancholy; Mrs. A’s viscous stability and my wife’s ethereal disorder; the lucid mathematical reasoning that I had cultivated for years and Babette’s intuitive way of thinking: Each element, despite assiduousness and affection, remained discrete from the others.
It is apt Mrs. A was considered the rock the couple leaned on, or the glue keeping them together, because she was irritatingly ordinary with her simplistic, outmoded, steadfast principles voiced in proverbs. She allowed no change, no uncertainties, forever giving instructions for a perfect and pure relationship: “She had a nearly religious inclination to look after people.” What the couple missed most about her when she was gone was “the way she encouraged us. People are so stingy with their encouragement. They just want to be sure you’re more needy than they are.”

It is only when Mrs. A gets cancer and is dying, that these two, so absorbed in their careers, realize her value, their loss, and their own problems ahead. Further, they wonder when she finds her home with previously distant cousins, if they, the couple, meant anything to her:
And who were we to Mrs. A? Employers, not much more than that. Death realigns roles according to a formal order of importance, instantly mending the sentimental roles that we allowed oneself to break in life, and it didn’t matter much that Emmanuele was the closest thing to a grandson that Mrs. A had known or that she’d liked to consider us, Nora and me, her adoptive children. We were not.
This novel offers many insights, even about the effects of the progress of cancer, but also about memory and what we leave behind. The narrator complains about Mrs. A’s not planning for the future, since her safeguarded precious items become refuse at her death. But then he has to admit:
If Nora’s and my furniture were to end up at auction one day, or if it were found under the ashes of a volcanic eruption, it would hold almost no sign of us, just some furtive scribblings by Emmanuele, like cave paintings, dating from the period when every corner of the house was threatened by his markers. The archeologists would find no photographs . . . We don’t even have a wedding album, can you imagine?
Yet this is not a sad book, but a tribute to a woman who was invaluable to the family she served. This is not always the case for the housekeeper archetype: for comparison, another fascinating but very different portrait of a housekeeper, read the marvelous Hungarian classic The Door by Magda Szabo. There is no doubt we all need a steadying hand and close companion, especially in this chaotic contemporary world. As Giordano shows us, a housekeeper can provide such an ordering of our lives. 

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Review Posted on April 05, 2016

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