Monday, August 5, 2019

Literary Wives #40

Ties by Domenico Starnone 
translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
Welcome to the 40th "wifely" book review for the Literary Wives online discussion group!

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Naomi of Consumed by Ink

I will mention that I highly recommend reading Jhumpa Lahiri's introduction to this book. I loved the background she gave to her familiarity with this book and her knowledge of the Italian language. She gives a general outline of the book's organization as she views it and also some insight to her word choices as she translated. 

I was fascinated by this cover image. And now that I've read the book, I believe I "get it." Since their father has been out of their life for several years, it is important to Anna (the younger child and only daughter) to determine whether it was their father who taught her brother (the elder child and only son) Sandro to tie his shoelaces, since he does it in a different way than Anna and her mother, Vanda. As Sandro tells Anna,
This story about the laces involves all of us. Dad came back for Mom, for me, for you.
And the three of us wanted him to come back. Get it? (135)
Honestly, I'm not sure I get it! I guess Sandro's point is that Aldo didn't return to his family due to any one of them, but for all three of them. Though we learn he never truly returned in heart, only in physical presence and providing financial support. Once Vanda believed that Aldo had finally returned to his family to stay, the wedding band that she had once thrown across the room onto the floor during an argument with Aldo, who was  estranged at the time, reappeared on her finger.
It meant: I feel tied to you again, what about you?
The mute question had the new imperative tone, it demanded an immediate reply, silent or blaring.
I resisted for a few days, but I saw that she was turning the ring around her finger in an increasingly anxious way. (108)
So, although Aldo had at some point in the past cut his own wedding band off his finger, as he later admitted, symbolically cutting Vanda out of his life, he now relented and had a jeweler make a gold wedding band for him, engraved with the date of their reconciliation. 
Neither of us said anything. But in spite of the ring I had a lover 
almost immediately--three months after I came back home--and I've been 
stubbornly unfaithful up until a few years ago. (108) 
They are now in their seventies. All I could think was how awful that must have been. For him. For her. And especially for their children. You think children don't know, but I'm convinced they usually do, unless you do an extremely conscientious job of pretending. 

As I learned some 10 years after my own divorce, my youngest son, who was 16 and still living  at home when I finally split from his father--my children were clueless. At least as far as my reasons for divorcing their father. I admit I can't believe they were not aware of the tension between us, but in effect, I am glad that they weren't. I knew I kept my mouth shut around them and only spoke to a couple of very close friends (as well as several different therapists!) of my unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the marriage. It took me two long-ass years to save every dime needed to file for divorce, but I was determined to pay for it myself...because, believe me...it WAS personal!! And I wanted him to know that. I wanted out at 10 years in and lasted another 12 before I could finally end it. I do believe many marriages would end much sooner if more women were financially secure, enough to support themselves and their children. Vanda was much the same. She began working at whatever job she could find and had to move due to not being able to afford to remain in the same house during those four years Aldo lived elsewhere. That was what kept me in my marriage, even though we rarely had enough money for living expenses, I only had two years of college completed and hadn't worked outside the home in 13 years, and I had no other financial resources as backup. And there were virtually no social safety net programs for people in such situations at the time. I did manage to complete my degree and then started working. I figured it was way past time that one of us did! ;) But enough about me...back to Vanda and Aldo.

From the crisis of many years ago we have both learned that we need to hide a great deal from each other, and tell each other even less. It's worked. (108)
I admit I kinda chuckled at Aldo calling his abandonment of his wife and children a "crisis"! I guess that's what he considered it to be, but naturally Vanda felt differently about it all. I did appreciate Starnone's organization of the book. We first read Vanda's version of their relationship, then we read Aldo's version of those same years. And boy, do we ever get two different versions, just as I'm sure would be true for any such two people in a relationship. Then finally, we have the two children, Sandro and Anna, who give the reader a summary of their own feelings, about each other, and their parents, particularly with regard to their marriage. I found this last perspective from the children to be the scariest. In some respects it would seem that we just have no idea as we "parent" through the daily routine of life exactly how we are affecting our own children. And although one parent, such as Vanda did,  can represent a positive role model, the dysfunctional truth of the relationship overall is typically revealed to the children. Though they may not realize it themselves, their actions and behaviors could very well depict their own emotional trauma as they enter and continue through adulthood. That seemed to be the case for Sandro and Anna. I did have to chuckle at the way each of them could easily "analyze" the other. It is always most difficult to objectively analyze our own behaviors, isn't it? 

We are here to answer 
the Literary Wives question: 

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Yet once again we have a heterosexual female who is committed to her relationship with a spouse and the biological father of her children, but he cannot stand the monotony and practical routines of childcare, working for a living, and having sex with the same woman for many many years. So, of course, he has a "crisis" and decides he must abandon his wife and children for a younger single woman. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? 

I sometimes wonder if that ol' biological "instinct" for males to go plant their seed to increase the population of the tribe as much as possible is still active and well... It certainly seems to be the case. 


Vanda writes a series of letters to Aldo during his four-year absence and it is her story we get first. I love how her first letter begins:
In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. 
I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes. (23)
I love the visualization prompted by the word "chafe"! That is such an ugly and uncomfortable feeling! I could so readily relate to Vanda's feeling that this had happened so suddenly. That was exactly how I felt... It is an unreal feeling, just as if you were plopped down in the middle of a strange planet with no knowledge of the beings, their culture, etc. For me, it was totally disorienting. I felt much the same as Vanda. Although my ex-husband didn't take off and abandon us, it felt much as if he had. (I think even he was smart enough to realize I would probably hunt him down and shoot him if he did! :))

I did chuckle as I read the remainder of her first letter to Aldo:
I bet she was the one who kissed you first. I know you're incapable of making the first move, 
either they reel you in or you don't budge. (24)
Exactly! So many men are truly 'gutless wonders', in my experience. One thing my ex did say several times: "Women are the ones who truly get things done. If not for them, men would be lost." (Yes, he did have some sense on occasion...) Though this is certainly not ALWAYS true, it seems to hold up much more often than not. And her use of the plural pronoun they seemed to be quite telling, indicating to me that she was well aware this woman was not the first with whom Aldo had had sex with during their marriage of 12 years. Even if you are uncertain, as I was, I immediately told myself it didn't matter--I knew of ONE and ONE was enough! 

Do you want to know what I think?
I think you have yet to realize what you've done to me. It's as if you've stuck your hand down my throat and pulled, pulled, pulled to the point of ripping my heart out, don't you get it? (24)
As I read this, I said aloud, "No, he doesn't. He doesn't 'get it' and he doesn't care...about you or your children, or even that he doesn't 'get it'!

Aldo explained that his "parents' miserable marriage ruined [his] childhood." I did cringe at Vanda's memory of his description of abuse:
...you said that your father had wrapped barbed wire around your mother, and that every time 
you saw a sharp clump of iron pierce her flesh you suffered. (25)
I admit I cringed upon reading this description. And hell yes! Of course that child would suffer, and probably be psychologically disturbed to some degree for life! But these are your wife and children, to whom you should feel a lifelong devotion and commitment! It is your opportunity to be a partner and parent in a very different way than your father evidently was. To set a good example and be a positive role model for your own children--the exact opposite of what you evidently experienced! 

Vanda continues to describe his machinations in stating how "imprisoned" they were by their marriage and parenting roles, and finally...
It dawned on me somewhat late that you were trying to be helpful. 
You wanted to make me realize that, by destroying the life we shared, you were in fact 
freeing me and the children, and that we should be grateful for your generosity. 
Oh, thank you, how kind of you. 
And you were offended because I threw you out of the house? (25)
What a magnanimous gesture! Right?!? So his rationale was that he would get out of the marriage/parenting role before he could turn into the physical (and I'm sure mental/emotional) abuser his father had been. You know...if he left, it would keep them safe from him... All that sounds good, doesn't it?!? Not to me, but maybe someone would believe such bullshit. 

I could definitely understand Vanda's fears that Aldo will turn their children and others against her...
You want to isolate me, to cut me out completely. And...you want to avoid 
every attempt to reexamine our relationship. This is driving me crazy. 
I, unlike you, need to know; it's crucial that you tell me, point by point, why you've left. 
If you still consider me a human being and not an animal to ward off with a stick, 
you owe me an explanation, and it had better be a decent one. (29)
I admit that some of these same thoughts went through my head, too. I wondered if he would try to turn my own children and/or others against me. But those were unnecessary worries. Everyone in my ex's own family except his mother and aunt felt it was way past time for me to have ended the marriage. Only two people were at all sympathetic toward him, even in his own family. That is sad... Though as far as I know, it didn't bother him at all, and he cut off virtually all ties he had with his family in the aftermath of the divorce. 

So exactly what does all this say about Vanda's role as a a wife? For me, the main message was that a "wife" is always stuck. She seems to be the one who is committed to the marriage as well as raising the children. She is long-suffering. However, for Vanda it is also a case of setting expectations for the future from that point forward. As Aldo notes, there is a "new imperative tone" Vanda uses with him. She is the one running the show and he is to acquiesce and do as told. I remember that same feeling once I decided to allow my ex to stay, as long as he got a job and gave me money to pay the bills such as rent, utilities, etc. That lasted two years until I could pay for a divorce. By that time he wasn't spending many nights at home anyway. Sometimes you just have to move on.

Vanda states that she married for love and then was committed to the relationship and particularly to parenting their children once they were born. She expressed incredulity that this wasn't the same for Aldo. I remember feeling the exact same thing. It was my assumption that my husband's commitment to our marriage and especially our children was the same as mine. I now realize the folly of that assumption, but just as Vanda did, I also assumed he would be there...he would remain faithful. But that was not the way it played out. I was also shell-shocked... How could anyone not carry through with their commitment? To their marriage. To their children. As I told my then-husband, for me, I disregarded the idea of "love" as a sense of commitment took over throughout the years. As Vanda states:
I believed real feelings never changed, especially in marriage. (26)
Yep! You and me both, Vanda! And we both got caught up in a situation proving our assumptions to be dead wrong. I realized that at 10 years into my marriage I had never once considered whether I was "happy" or not. How sad is that?!? My sense of commitment to marriage and parenting overrode any other considerations. Not so for others, I soon discovered...

I had always felt that "divorce" was not in my vocabulary. I had to disabuse myself of that silly notion! I worked very hard for another 10 years to try to salvage my marriage, but finally decided I could never again be happy in that relationship, especially after discovering his unfaithfulness. I am evidently not the forgiving kind when it comes to this type of situation and the resulting feelings of betrayal and abandonment. Vanda was a much more pragmatic person than I, in the end. I eventually realized I had done everything I could do and it would not work...and then I began to consider my own feelings and prioritize around them. Lesson learned! 

Vanda and Aldo were a good example of how feelings and people can change over time. And each of you must decide how you are going to handle those changes. 
Will they drive you apart? Will you work together to resolve conflict and/or
make the relationship positive for each of you once again? 
Or will you, as Aldo did, simply leave and refuse to 'work' on the relationship?
And was it a good thing for them to reunite?
It's not as if their children didn't recognize and suffer in their own ways 
from their parents' dysfunctional relationship.
That is quite obvious from their discussion and actions at the end of the book. 

If you've not read this book, I would recommend it.
It is rather short, yet dense, in my opinion.
There is much revealed in those mere 150 pages!

I am rarely ever forgiving of a spouse who is 'unfaithful'.
How about you? 


What's next for Literary Wives?
On October 7th we will discuss
Happenstance by Carol Shields

This is a very uniquely formatted book.
Two books in one, really. 
One book reads front to back and the other back to front.
This should prove interesting!

Happy reading!
~Lynn

6 comments:

  1. I should have said in my comments to Eva, but I'll say it here, that I did think the last section gave a different perspective to the entire marriage.

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    1. I would totally agree, Kay. I believe because it took the whole interpretation away from either party of the marriage and into the hands of those who had to endure the toxic environment it created. Boy, those kids were kinda scary, in my opinion!

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  2. I agree that this is a book worth reading. And that, in the end, I felt worst for the children. It's unfortunate how the parents handled the whole thing.
    Like a commenter pointed out on my post, Vanda's expectations of marriage were too high. Which makes me wonder where we get these expectations. They're obviously not good for us!

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    1. I definitely agree with that person's comment. I remembering reading it and thinking, "Yes, we do expect way too much of one person." I think our society has encouraged us to expect EVERYTHING from our partner. Which is too bad. I believe it leads to unrealistic expectations.

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  3. It really did come down to sex for Aldo didn't it? Seems like writing about sex and how hard monogamy is is all that men are capable of writing about seriously. As Kay pointed out, they do seem to forget their part in creating children!
    And I so completely agree with you about financial means often keeping women in unhappy marriages. I think that's probably what happened with Vanda, even as she was hoping he would leave again. She didn't go out and further her education to work outside the home, as you did! So she settled on punishing Aldo instead. The way Starnone wrote about it made her seem shrewish but it's hard not to sympathize with her when you think about her circumstances.

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    1. I agree with everything you said, Eva! Actually, I'm rather sick of reading about men who refuse to keep their pants zipped! Both in the real-world news and the world of fiction. I guess it is extremely common AND it makes for good tension and easily accessed writing tool, but...really!! I'm over it. I'm sure my attitude stems from having endured it from the female spouse's perspective, but so be it. It's not as if I am alone in that role! ;)

      I definitely sympathize with Vanda. I am sorry she chose to try to 'punish' him for the rest of their lives, but that was her choice to make. And if she had to financial support for an alternative life, the only control she really had was how she would interact with him in the present and future. However, IMHO, it is her negative behavior that was the cornerstone of the children's dysfunctional adult life. So sad. But a well-written book. It certainly prompts emotional reaction and discussion!

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