A new edition of the Booker Prize winner Penelope Fitzgerald's best-loved novel of romance in post-war Italy, with a new introduction by Julian Barnes. The Ridolfis are a Florentine family of long lineage and little money. It is 1955, and the family, like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days. Only eighteen-year-old Chiara shows anything like vitality. Chiara has set her heart on Salvatore, a young and brilliant doctor who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one. Faced with this, she calls on her English girlfriend Barney to help her make the impossible match...
So there were moments, but not enough.
Fitzgerald’s prose here is both delicate, almost fastidious, and gaudy. The humour, when it arrives (and it comes often and in droves) is beyond farcical. Yet there is such a sweetness about Chiara, the disturbed Salvatore, and Chiara’s blundering English friend, Barney, that you can’t help falling in love with all of them. The fact that the novel doesn’t really go anywhere makes it hardly any different than life itself. And Fitzgerald clearly sees both the muddle and the majesty of life.
The wandering style and the Italian families might be confusing at first, but this is a novel with as much evidence of Penelope Fitzgerald’s mastery as any in her oeuvre. Recommended, as ever.
Chiara’s school friend, the formidable Barney (Lavinia Barnes) comes to help. Complicating rather than helping are Chiara’s gentle, retiring father, Count Giancarlo Ridolfi, his sister Maddalena, and his nephew Cesare, who runs the farm. Chiara and Salvatore marry, but his bristliness and Chiara’s direct, unswerving honesty make for continued friction, which becomes public in a funny scene at a villa party given by a family friend, Professor Pulci. One of Fitzgerald’s themes is the irrational manner in which those who love each other can get into and sustain arguments. Another is the notion of children recognizing that in a particular situation they are older than their parents. Something she repeats here is the way deception becomes easier with practice. And as always, we wonder how she knows so much about Italian farming, Gramsci, and various other arcane matters.
And I guess the book is about innocence, too, of all kinds: personal, romantic, political, and also the kinds that arise from wealth, or from inexperience, or from unearned self-assurance. Fitzgerald makes it clear from a doubtful but enchanting historical anecdote attached to the family's grandest house that innocence can certainly lead to barbarity, but, considering how insightful Fitzgerald can be about the general indifference and loneliness of human life, she treats most of this novel's characters remarkably gently. This might, perhaps, be a comment on their social or economic status: the rich can afford to be slightly eccentric and pleasant but ineffectual, after all. But I also think that the author might have been genuinely fond of the characters she created here and chose to treat them with a lenient hand. And I was genuinely surprised at how much I came to like them, too, even those personages that Fitzgerald drew with just a few strokes seem remarkably vivid and human. But maybe the old adage that God loves fools, drunks, and innocents holds true here, too. I get the distinct impression that the author just wanted to see these lucky people tumble gracefully and awkwardly through life. Recommended. I'm wondering why I waited so long to read Penelope Fitzgerald.