By: Francesca Duranti
Format/Source: Advanced reading copy courtesy of Open Road Integrated Media via NetGalley
The arrival of a mysterious young stranger disrupts the lives of a wealthy, unhappy family
Ever since he was a little boy, Aldo Rugani has been drawn to the world of the aristocracy. Now an art dealer with a questionable past, Aldo finds himself a regular guest at the Tuscan estate of the affluent but unstable Santini family. He also works his way into the confidence of the clan’s elderly but very much alive matriarch, Violante. Tough and indomitable, the grande dame is determined to see that her troubled family has a secure future before she dies.
As an outsider, Aldo can only watch as the family members mindlessly self-destruct. He pines for Lavinia, Violante’s much-adored, romantically reckless widowed daughter-in-law. But on one particular weekend holiday in Tuscany, a young visitor comes to the Santini estate. A friend of Lavinia’s son, Marco intends only to stop over briefly. But before he departs, everything will be different for the hapless Santinis.
I was browsing through the titles available from Open Road Media on NetGalley when the covers from Francesca Duranti caught my attention. As many of you know, I’m always on the lookout for Italian literature translated and available over here. The premise of this novel also sounded interesting: aristocratic classes hiding a messed up family dynamic, a stranger upsetting the balance of things, etc. This novel was released on 21 January 2014.
This is a rather strange novel. I think part of it has to do with the language: the prose and reflection can be beautiful at times but the dialogue sometimes can come off as stilted and odd. Granted, almost all of these characters are from the aristocratic classes so there’s something a little archaic in the way they talk about matters close to them, but it did come off as very awkward to read. I also thought it might be a translation thing going on there, that there’s just no other way to translate certain feelings into English. I don’t know, but it came off rather strangely, almost unrealistically.
The characters involved as pretty unhappy and locked in their own unhappiness: Leopoldo and Cynthia’s loveless marriage, Lavinia’s failed relationships, the absent Nicola, the controlling Violante. Part of me wonders why they continue to live in such a state of unhappiness (the narrative subtly points to their need to keep up appearances formally). Yet they seem almost self-absorbed in their unhappiness, it’s strange. While I sympathise with their own personal struggles, I can’t help but also feel rather remote from these characters; you never quite sense any other aspects of their personality that shows their better side. Like, why exactly does Aldo love Lavinia and why does he stick around? Every time they are together, all Lavinia does is talk about the state of her love life.
And then the odd Marco saunters into the estate and suddenly everyone’s curious about him. He’s sullen, he’s different from them, he serves as a catalyst on a number of levels (odd as they may be). With this part of the story, his presence reminded me of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (review) because in that novel a stranger also appears in a group of characters’ lives and effectively turns everything upside down.
Happy Ending is essentially a quiet family drama and how a stranger redirects the lives of a number of characters from a state of unhappiness and (hopefully) on a road to happiness. Personally I thought this was established in leaps and bounds; I never quite got a sense of how Marco’s presence in Leopoldo and Cynthia’s house led to their relationship heading back to “a second honeymoon” (especially as they didn’t really care for Marco for most of the novel) or how Lavinia suddenly looked at Aldo with fresh eyes (just because Aldo didn’t immediately respond to her beck and call? Didn’t seem plausible). While the characters were not wholly likeable, they weren’t downright annoying or unlikeable either. Nonetheless the book as a whole was an interesting read.