With the busy-ness that came with the end of 2011 a couple of books that I read and enjoyed slipped through the cracks. Both merit mentions, so I'll start today with one that I read along with Buried in Print. Something I love about the web and being part of an online book community is the spontaneous book discussions that can erupt when two like-minded readers find themselves thinking about or reading the same book at the same time. In this case we began chatting about Italian author Natalia Ginzburg at Goodreads. One thing led to another and we decided we would both read and chat about Ginzburg's final novel, The House and the City. It was chosen as part of a larger project to read epistolary novels, and I tagged along because I have long wanted to read Ginzburg. Being fond of the format it was not too hard to convince me to pick up this book rather than All Our Yesterdays, which had been one of the books I had planned to read last year. She's been one of those 'I really mean to read her work' authors.
While not without flaws and a few limitations brought on by the format, The House and the City was a book I mostly enjoyed as I was reading. Does that sound like a strange response? Reading a book compiled of letters sounds like the perfect sort of book to pick up and set aside to dip into on whim, but I found that reading just a few letters and setting it down didn't really compel me to pick it up again later. This is a fairly short novel and one that works best when taken as a whole. When I would spend long spans of time with it I would find myself happily lost in the drama of the story, but then the thread would easily be lost when I didn't pick up the book for a few days. Part of the problem was a matter of continuity. This is an epistolary novel that is made up of a handful of letter writers and keeping names and personalities straight took some time.
The city of the title is Rome and the house is Le Margherita in the little town of Monte Fermo. Lucrezia lives at Le Margherita with her husband and children and it forms a hub where friends and lovers meet and socialize. It's a place that these friends think of fondly--of warm gatherings and happy past holidays. Giuseppe is Lucrezia's former lover who has decided to leave Rome and move to New Jersey to live with his brother. It is their correspondence that sets the story in motion. In a way this is a story that begins at the end really, or maybe better to say it begins with new beginnings. Although Giuseppe and Lucrezia are still close friends, they know they are no longer bound together by love. So many happy memories are now in the past and this move sets in motion many changes for the various characters. When Giuseppe leaves, many ties will be broken even though the group of friends keep in touch via letters. By the way, the book was written in 1985, and the letters are undated, so it is not necessarily hard to imagine the characters keeping in contact through letters rather than other methods.
Lucrezia and Giuseppe are not the only letter writers and the two don't only write to each other. There is Giuseppe's son, with whom Giuseppe is not terribly close, and who is initially working and living in Germany. Then there is a circle of several friends and a few acquaintances, each with their own life, different problems and relationships, loves and work. They are like individual planets moving into and out of each other's orbit. One will write to another about yet another's problems or circumstances, much like any normal letter-writer. They are a close group of friends whose actions are interrelated and affect each other.
Buried in Print noted how messy life can be and in particular relationships and reading about them can be an overwhelming, yet intensely interesting prospect. It's a little strange to think how a wider portrait can be formed of these lives through simple letters. Gaps are filled in by the various characters giving their own version of events--each with a different piece of the puzzle, and this is a story that takes place over what seems to be several years, which means quite a lot happens. Babies are born, people die, relationships begin and end and there is much turmoil and angst as well as moments of happiness.
It's too difficult to try and summarize the plot since so much does happen and to such varied characters, but I suppose this group of friends is simply a microcosm of humanity. I was wondering why Ginzburg chose to tell the story in an epistolary format rather than as a straightforward narrative. I suppose getting different perspectives is a way to shed light on the actions within the story from different vantage points. Initially I thought it felt a little forced or artificial. Maybe it's been too long since I was a serious letter writer (and at one time in my life I was). Do people share their stories, their histories in the same way as Giuseppe and Lucrezia do (surely they already know each other's histories)? I should say did they, since letter writing seems to be a lost art these days. Then again there are times I prefer to send a long email to someone (sadly I am no longer the letter writer I used to be) rather than picking up the phone--it's a way to contemplate problems and mulling them over in my mind before clicking 'send'.
All in all this was an enjoyable read, though not without faults. I think it is perhaps not the best place to start with Natalia Ginzburg, who was an award winning, respected author in Italy. I have a feeling this is not her best work, but it certainly won't stop me from picking up All Our Yesterdays at some point.