A forbidden love affair threatens to destroy an aimless college student and his precocious sister.
Peter Niletti and his younger sister, Severine, are students at a respected liberal arts university, where their father is a philosophy professor. As children, Peter was in awe of Severine’s talent and beauty and jealous of her name, which he believed she embodied “as though having emerged from the womb with a preternaturally precocious awareness of who she was.” The siblings forged a close bond, but as teenagers, the bond takes a darker turn as they begin a passionate, sexually charged affair. For Severine, the shift in the relationship is a mistake; however, the affair triggers for Peter an all-consuming obsession that fills his every waking hour with thoughts of Severine. When she begins dating a fellow student named Spencer, Peter’s jealously leads him on a downward spiral of unpredictable behavior and drug use with his friend Don. Overwhelmed by Peter’s obsession, Severine embarks on a desperate course of action. Cassese’s novel is an ambitious and challenging effort that struggles to deliver on its disturbing premise. Cassese expertly renders the permissive, free-thinking milieu that shapes Peter’s and Severine’s intellectual developments. Although their father is a relatively minor character, his influence as a philosophy professor can be seen in their interests and, especially, their speech. Cassese’s development of the two lead characters yields more mixed results. Peter is a fairly static character whose primary interest is maintaining the relationship he has with Severine, an interest that ultimately comes at the expense of continuing his education or developing relationships with anyone other than Severine or Don. The lack of character development actually helps the novel by reinforcing Peter’s single-minded focus on Severine. Despite being the object of Peter’s, and later Spencer’s, desire, Severine remains a bit of a mystery. Cassese offers occasional glimpses into Severine’s motivations, but her reasons for beginning a relationship with Peter remain elusive.
A harrowing character study of a dissolute young man destroyed by obsession, the underlying nihilism of which might be off-putting to some readers.