At the approach of puberty our self-esteem is at its most vulnerable. Are we different from our peers? Because mostly we want to fit in. Are we too tall, too short, too pale, too dark, too poor, too rich, ugly, pretty, too fat, too thin? We don’t even want to be too clever we just don’t want to stand out.
Imagine then the anguish of Giovanna when she overhears her beloved father describing her to her mother as ‘Very ugly.’ He was angry with his daughter for not doing as well at school as she had formerly, and his anger caused his destructive words. Because what he said was that she was becoming like his sister, the hated Vittoria, who he had always been described as ugliness and spite combined.
…I was going through a period of feeling very fragile. I’d begun menstruating almost a year earlier. my breasts were all too visible and embarrassed me, I was afraid I smelled bad and was always washing. I went to bed lethargic and woke up lethargic. My only comfort at that time, my only certainty, was that (my father) absolutely adored me, all of me. So that when he compared me to Aunt Vittoria it was worse than if he’d said: Giovanna used to be pretty, now she’s turned ugly.
This leads Giovanna to develop a passion to meet Aunt Vittoria. Her parents try to discourage her but being liberal and fair-minded people, they do not forbid her. It gradually emerges that, while both parents work in education and are graduates with active intellectual lives, her father comes from the poor side of town. He rejects his origins strongly. Culture, education and political debate make up the foundation of her parent’s lives. They are atheists, they try to bring Giovanna up without hiding any truths. How ironic then, that as she explores the world of her aunt, she finds that her parents, and particularly her beloved father have told her many many lies.
Giovanna lives in quite a closeted world. Her parents work, she goes to school, her parents socialise with their long-term friends, Constanza and Mariano and Giovanna with their daughters, Angela and Ida. They are all cultured well-heeled socialists. Her Aunt Vittoria belongs in quite a different world. When Giovanna eventually persuades her parents to allow her to meet her aunt (and to wait outside in her car while the meeting takes place) this is what she finds
The door opened, a woman dressed all in blue appeared, tall, with a great mass of very black hair arranged on her neck, as thin as a post, and yet with broad shoulders and a large chest. She held a lighted cigarette between her fingers, she coughed and said, moving back and forth between Italian and dialect:
“What’s the matter, you’re sick, you have to pee?”
And so begins a relationship that over the next four years will change Giovanna’s life. Aunt Vittoria, is loud, violent and manipulative. She is religious, yet swears constantly, she loathes Giovanna’s father and does not refrain from criticising him.
Gradually Giovanna meets other young people in Aunt Vittoria’s circle, some rather threatening young men among them, and moves away from Angela and Ida. But more importantly, she finds out exactly how her parents have been lying to her and learns to lie herself.
Giovanna is not the most sympathetic character, nor is Aunt Vittoria, but they are people struggling to find what they want from life. Giovanna has perhaps a sophistication and vocabulary way beyond her years. The book states it is written with hindsight, but there also a level of relentless narcissism that I found repellent.
As you can probably tell I didn’t love this book although I liked the irony that in some way religion plays a part in Giovanna’s path to independence. The book was lent to me (and highly recommended) by a friend who has published two books in the coming-of-age genre, so I respect her opinion. Maybe I’m too old and crabby to put up with the self obsession of a teenage girl. Books about people with dementia are more my speed these days.
I think a knowledge of the geography of Naples would add to the pleasure of reading this book. The public there were certainly queued up waiting for it when it came from the publishers.
That Giovanna is a formidable young woman is shown by her way of divesting herself of her virginity. She chooses the young man, humiliates him, and makes the event as brief as possible.
He drove me home, him dissatisfied, me delighted.
At the close of the novel she is sixteen years old and ready to leave Naples with a girl friend to find a life away from her family.
On the train, we promised each other to become adults as no one ever had before.