To the Wedding

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ninon, an evidently healthy young woman who plans to marry her lover Gino, visits a doctor for treatment of a sore on her lip. After testing her, he informs her that she tests positive for the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Her intuition tells her that she caught the disease from a young apprentice cook with whom she made love only once. She visits him in prison to berate him and finds her suspicion confirmed by his moribund condition. Shattered by the news of her own mortal illness, Ninon tells Gino to have his blood tested, and when his results are negative she breaks off the relationship. Gino, however, insists that he still wants to marry her. Eventually Ninon agrees, although she insists on conditions that will protect Gino from infection.

The body of the novel is devoted to Ninon’s narration of events in her earlier life and those leading up to the wedding and the day of the wedding itself, alternating with Tsobanakos’ narrations of the preparations of Jean Ferrero and Zdena for their trips to Venice and the trips themselves. Jean travels from his home in southern France on his Honda motorbike, while Zdena takes the bus from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where she has lived since the fall of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

Ninon receives strong support and sympathy not only from Gino but also from her parents, friends, and physicians. Her friend Marella convinces her that she should marry Gino. The rest of the world, however, views her with undisguised horror. She goes to Milano to investigate a new drug, and while there she visits the piazza to see the Duomo in the evening. A large dog, off its leash, paws her, and its owner, after assuring her that the dog will not harm her, begins to paw her himself, assuming that she is a whore. She tries to fight him off, but he persists, and finally in desperation she tells him that she is infected. He flings her to the ground and begins to shout curses, accusing her of trying to pick him up with the intention of infecting him. A woman passing by raises a heavy handbag to hit Ninon but is restrained by her husband, who says that the matter is none of their affair. The worst of the incident, says Ninon, is the hatred with which the woman and her husband regard her.

The single segment that is narrated by neither Ninon nor Tsobanakos is in the words of Gino’s father when he learns that his son is about to marry Ninon. Horrified at the thought that his son will catch the disease from Ninon, he determines to kill her. Such an action, he rationalizes, will be a kindness, since it will save her months and perhaps years of suffering and will also spare his son similar suffering and death. Any jury, he reasons, would include fathers, and no father would vote to convict a man who had taken such an action to protect his son. When he comes face to face with Ninon, however, he cannot bring himself to shoot her.

While Ninon’s segments of the story take her in time from her childhood to the history of her disease and the preparations for the wedding, Tsobanakos’ narratives of Jean and Zdena take them from the final preparations for their separate trips to the wedding through the journeys themselves. Before setting out, Jean visits a mountain pool to which he had taken Ninon when she was a girl. He crosses the mountains on his bike, enjoys a pizza in a small workers’ restaurant, and spends a night in a camp on the banks of the Po with three rebellious teenage boys before riding the final stage of his journey. Along the way he stops to buy a special perfume as a present for Ninon.

Zdena’s preparations are more elaborate. She goes to a beauty shop to have her hair done for the first time in her life; the beautician misunderstands her words and thinks that Zdena herself is to be the bride. Zdena gives considerable thought to what she will take for a wedding present. Eventually, in a small shop, she buys two exquisitely hand-carved bird calls to take to her daughter. On the bus that is to take her from Bratislava to Venice, she sits next to a fellow Czech who had worked for the Communist government; now that his party is out of power, he keeps himself alive by driving a taxi. Despite their political differences, he and Zdena strike up a friendship, and at one point she bribes the bus driver to wait an extra couple of minutes so that her new companion will not be left behind. She is rewarded when the man surprises her with food and drink that he has bought.

Awareness of Ninon’s illness is constantly beneath the surface of her parents’ actions. She herself is able to keep her terror under control most of the time. At the wedding celebration she dances barefoot, seemingly...

(The entire section is 1937 words.)

To the Wedding

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John Berger’s short novel deals with a major social problem through the medium of the characters he creates. Ninon, the central figure, is a young Frenchwoman who must face the grim reality that she will be a victim of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Her fiance Gino, a young Italian salesman, and her parents, must find their own ways to come to terms with Ninon’s fate. The novel follows her parents—Jean Ferrero and Zdena, a Czech—as they prepare to go to the wedding, and it also follows Ninon’s story of her life.

Ninon tells Gino to have himself tested; when the result is negative, she declares that she will not marry him. He strongly wishes to go through with the marriage, and eventually, with the urging of her friend Marella, Ninon agrees to go through with the ceremony, stipulating conditions that will protect Gino from infection. While the outside world views Ninon with horror, her family and friends as well as physicians who deal with her are kind and supportive. The wedding itself and the party which follows are a celebration of life.

The final scenes show that party but also show, through one of the narrators, a blind Greek salesman of good-luck charms, the future which Ninon is facing, including increasing illness, weakness and suffering. Gino will do what he can to relieve that suffering, but he must also try to deal with his own pain at what Ninon will be going through. These are harrowing scenes, but Berger manages with great skill to convey a strong sense of the value of human life and the joy it can contain.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1550.

Boston Globe. June 7, 1995, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, March 1, 1995, p. 246.

Library Journal. CXX, May 1, 1995, p. 129.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1995, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. C, June 4, 1995, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXI, September 25, 1995, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 6, 1995, p. 56.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 29, 1995, p. 24.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 23, 1995, p. 6.