In Other Words
Like Family by Paolo Giordano
Like Family by Paolo Giordano, translated by Anne Milano Appel, Viking, 146 pages
Like Family goes by so quickly that it feels like a wisp of a novel. And yet, it contains real meaning: how family life can play out more vividly when there is someone else (in this case, a housekeeper) to witness it; how gatherings with extended family can be like going through the motions, whereas employees can become like family. Anne Milano Appel has translated this novel, published in Italian as Il nero e l’argento The Black and Silver), smoothly into English. The Italian title suggests that the novel is about the relationship between the narrator and his wife, Nora — the narrator characterizes Nora as silver and himself as black — but the heart of the novel, as reflected in the American title, is how the couple’s relationship with their housekeeper molds their family life.
The narrator, a physicist, recalls that the couple hired Mrs. A. as a housekeeper when Nora needed bed rest during her pregnancy. The power Mrs. A. will exert on the household is evident from the start. The narrator finds himself refusing an important grant to do research in a Zurich lab because Mrs. A. and Nora are in consensus that the baby should be brought up in Italy. The narrator only occasionally deploys his language as a physicist to narrative effect. After refusing the grant, he feels, albeit briefly, deep satisfaction that he has his Nora who understands him. “All progress made by physics from the beginning — heliocentrism and Newton’s law of universal gravitation; Maxwell’s synthetic, perfect equations and Planck’s constant; restricted and general relativity; multidimensional twisted strings and the most remote pulsars — all the glory of those discoveries taken together would not be enough to give me the same sense of satisfaction.”
When Emanuele is born, Mrs. A. becomes not only his nanny, but also a grounding force in the family. A few years later, however, Mrs. A. leaves, and the narrator expertly details how the relationship between Nora and him threatens to unravel in the aftermath. Mrs. A. leaves because she feels “tired,” but she is quickly diagnosed with cancer. In the meantime, Nora becomes overwhelmed with balancing household chores with her professional life, and she finds out that her mother is no help at all. Mrs. A. seemingly divines the tension between the couple and makes a last attempt from her deathbed to cement the bond between them. Last year’s acclaimed translation of The Door by Magda Szabo covers somewhat similar territory — a housekeeper who becomes indispensible and then falls sick — from the perspective of her female employer, Magda. What’s interesting is that Magda experiences far greater guilt than the male narrator of
Like Family about whether she is caring sufficiently for her ailing former housekeeper. Like Family is narrated almost casually, though it is braided with intimacy: To prepare Mrs. A. to undergo chemotherapy, the narrator unexpectedly takes her to a shop to pick out a wig.
The novel is not narrated sequentially, and we keep waiting in vain to see Mrs. A. in action, in her prime. Witnessing what Mrs. A. accomplished in the narrator’s home may have given the story additional force. We might understand better what the narrator and his wife miss so acutely after Mrs. A.’s departure. But the narrator details only a brief experience of being cared for by Mrs. A. while his wife was on a summer vacation with her mother.
The narrator’s family and Mrs. A. were a part of each other’s daily lives for several years, and Emanuele was all but a grandson to Mrs. A. After acting in a stage performance at school, Emanuele feels despondent when he realizes that Mrs. A. has left already. It doesn’t matter that his real grandmother and her husband were in the audience. Emanuele wants to be seen by Mrs. A., the person who used to be his nanny and playmate.
When the grim business of death approaches, Mrs. A.’s relatives scoop her up and the narrator and his wife have little access to her. She leaves them two pieces of furniture: a table and a credenza. The same relatives presumably sell off the cherished paintings that Mrs. A. had kept covered up for years, and which belonged to her late husband. The narrator observes: “Poor, foolish Mrs. A.! You let yourself be duped — death tricked you, and illness before that. Where are the paintings that you kept hidden behind the screen? ... You often boasted about how smart you were, how you learned everything you knew from experience, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out to be very useful ... The end does not pardon us even the slightest of faults, even the most innocent of failings.”
It’s puzzling that the narrator at times becomes hypercritical of Mrs. A., and it is a reminder that despite his brushstrokes, her true character somehow eludes us. As relatable as this story is, there persists something feather-like in the way it f loats away: By not bringing us closer to Mrs. A’s essence, the novel lacks the weight it might otherwise have had. What is clearer is that the relationships we consider to be our closest human connections can be tenuous and may shift someday. A cold vacuum is left when sickness and death part us from people who may not be related to us, but who nevertheless were like family.