Among Women Only

by Cesare Pavese

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Clelia Oitana returns to Turin in the dim light of a snowy January day, a few years after the end of World War II. She registers at the best hotel, answers no telephone calls, and, in solitude, savors her return to her birthplace, a major industrial city in northwest Italy. The calm ends when she looks into the hallway to see medical attendants carrying away an unconscious young woman, who, while alone, took an overdose of Veronal. Clelia later discovers that the woman is Rosetta Mola, the daughter of an established Turin family.

Clelia, the narrator, is a successful couturiere in Rome, where she works in the establishment of “Madame,” a major Italian designer. Madame has sent Clelia to Turin to prepare to open and then manage a new fashion house. The story takes place in late winter and early spring as Clelia works with an architect and construction contractors to prepare for the opening of the firm at a location on the Via Po.

Clelia, thirty-four years old, left Turin seventeen years earlier, determined to rise from her working-class background. On the first afternoon of the return, Clelia, alone, walks through her old neighborhood, which is smaller and dirtier than she remembers, and realizes that nothing remains there for her but memories. That evening she goes to a ball with Morelli, a friend who provides entree into the fashionable world of Turin’s salons, a world inhabited by the smart set that she wistfully envied as a working girl. She finds that if she does not fit into her old quarter, neither does this frivolous and unproductive leisure class attract her.

Yet the fashion business depends on high society. Interspersed with her work in getting the new business ready, Clelia attends fashionable parties, visits artists’ studios, joins her new friends in slumming expeditions, and travels to nearby villas and casinos. The only members of the group with enough depth to interest her are Momina, a woman about her age, and Rosetta, twenty-three, who, recovering from the suicide attempt, returns to society.

Clelia moves back and forth between the construction work at the Via Po and the world of the salons, which are places of malicious gossip and restless searches for diversion. She senses that Rosetta is again irresistibly pulled toward suicide, unable to live with the pretension and hypocrisy surrounding her. Clelia knows that Rosetta is desperate but does not realize how near the crisis is. After a last-minute flurry of preparations before Madame arrives in Turin, Clelia learns that Rosetta has disappeared. Her body is found in a rented room, dead from poison. Clelia concludes that she could not have saved Rosetta: “You just can’t love someone else more than yourself. If you can’t save yourself, nobody can.”

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