The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg

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(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

An epistolary novel consisting of more than ninety letters written during a three-year period, The City and the House brings together a colorful group of friends whose failed marriages, unhappy love affairs, and strained family relationships present a dismal view of contemporary domestic life. The breakup of the close-knit Italian family, the adoption of different sexual mores, and the rejection of traditional gender roles bring about new configurations in social relationships. Seeking their way as best they can, Natalia Ginzburg’s wounded characters take refuge in human solidarity; enduring bonds of friendship ease the pain of problematic family ties.

As the novel begins, Giuseppe Guaraldi, the middle-aged protagonist, writes a letter to Lucrezia, his former lover, informing her of his intention to move to Princeton, New Jersey, to live with his brother, Ferruccio, a scientist who has been living in the United States for many years. In numerous letters written between this announcement and his departure, Giuseppe sorts out his emotions and reflects on his life. He recounts the failure of his first marriage and the effect it had on his son, Alberico. In writing to Lucrezia, he presents the problems that brought their love affair to an end. Lucrezia, in turn, argues that Giuseppe has never wanted to accept as his own Graziano, a child born from their relationship. Lucrezia accuses Giuseppe of being unable to play the role of the father.

Lucrezia and her husband, Piero, live with their five children in a large house called “Le Margherite” in the country near Perugia. This house is the scene of numerous happy gatherings as the friends meet there to spend holidays and weekends together. Lucrezia and Piero have an open marriage, and Lucrezia is prone to falling in love with other men.

Giuseppe settles into his new life in the United States. He begins to teach a course on Italian literature, to write a novel, and to play the role of househusband. Barely two months after Giuseppe’s arrival, his brother dies of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the wake of this unexpected death, Anne Marie and Giuseppe are brought together by their mutual loss. They develop a relationship based on their respect and love for Ferruccio. Eventually, they marry.

While Giuseppe is establishing a new life in the United States, his son is beginning to make his way as a filmmaker. Alberico has moved to Rome, where he is living with his friends Salvatore, a homosexual, and Nadia, a young Sicilian woman who gives birth to a child fathered by a Viennese journalist. Nadia has broken off her relationship with the child’s father, who refuses to admit his paternity. Given his sexual orientation, Alberico will never be a biological father. He is happy, therefore, to claim Nadia’s child as his own. Giuseppe, writing to one of his friends, describes the situation this way: “The baby is called Giorgia, just like my mother. Her last name is Guaraldi, just like mine. In some way I have become a grandfather.”

While this unlikely family of two men, a woman, and a new baby is admired by their friends and neighbors for their ability to nurture one another, other family bonds are coming apart. Anne Marie’s daughter Chantal gives...

(The entire section is 826 words.)