A father’s experience of raising a son burdened with severe birth defects is, and isn’t, the subject of this curiously uninvolving novel, a prizewinner from a popular veteran Italian writer.
The narrator, identified only as Frigerio, is a schoolteacher whose relationships with his stoical younger wife Franca and their afflicted son Paolo seem little more than occasions for (the somewhat “frigid”?) Frigerio’s observations on disability, family solidarity (or the lack of it), and the vulnerability felt by people brought thus closely into contact with disability and enervation. The tale is awfully static, and stabs at drama made by Frigerio’s meetings with various family, acquaintances, and representatives of medical and educational establishments generally fall flat because Pontiggia does not persuade us that his characters could possibly be as self-absorbed and heartless as they’re here depicted (Frigerio’s mistress sums up his situation thus: “I’m amazed by how much you’ve hidden from me!”; a school psychologist admonishes “You want to protect your son too much . . . . Life is all about risks!”). A series of bland, unshaped brief scenes that all but eschew characterization cohere only into a generalized summary that reads like a self-help manual. The theme of the “new birth” experienced by families of brain-damaged children is left almost totally undeveloped. There’s potential drama in Frigerio’s vacillations among compassion, despair, resentment, and anger (if only he seemed real to us)—and even more in Paolo’s sweetly distracted demeanor, which includes a very real awareness of how he is “different” from others. But Paolo’s presence barely registers until the latter chapters, by which time the reader has grown impatient with Pontiggia’s circuitous, discursive treatment of a subject that cries our for immediacy and specificity.
This ought to have been a very moving story; instead, it’s an opportunity wasted.