Like Family by Paulo Giordano
This short novella takes an intimate look at a young, mismatched husband and wife: Nora is an exuberant, creative, messy, and outgoing interior decorator, while the unnamed 35-year-old narrator is a mathematical, precise, introverted, and socially awkward Ph.D. in physics. The narrator credits Nora with bursting into his life and flushing him out of his “hidey-hole.” When Nora is bedridden with her first pregnancy, they hire a childless, elderly widow known as Mrs. A. to help. The couple nicknames her Babette because, like the Isak Dinesen character of Babette’s Feast, she prepares elaborate meals for them. She soon becomes a fixture in their lives and stays on to serve as housekeeper and nanny to their new son, Emanuele. A loving, but finicky, woman, she sets the standards for the household: she rewashes dishes the narrator had washed the night before. As the title implies, she becomes so much a part of the family that she accompanies the family on Emanuele’s first day of school and is mistaken by strangers to be his grandmother.
With no warning, after eight years of employment, Mrs. A. calls one morning to report that she can no longer work for them, because she is “tired”. Blind-sighted and stunned, the couple soon learn that the real reason for her departure is that she has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. This is not a spoiler as the book opens with Mrs. A.’s death, then circles back in time through her 16-month fight and loss to cancer, and the halcyon days when she was considered a member of the family. Mrs. A. not only performed the most tedious household chores, she was their confidant, encourager, and the glue that held them together, “a steady element, a haven, an ancient tree with a trunk so massive that even three pairs of arms could not encircle it,” the author writes.
Since his birth, Emanuele has only known family to include Mrs. A. so he is understandably baffled that she could just stop coming one day. He learns the hard lesson that “nothing lasts forever when it comes to human relationships.” The narrator and Nora have also spent most of their years together with Mrs. A. at their side. They must reevaluate their life without her. He tells his therapist, “Nora and I are always so busy, so distracted, so tired. If these really are our best years, I’m not satisfied with how we’re using them.”
The couple sees Mrs. A. through her illness, accompanies her to the wig maker, and sits by her bedside. This beautifully written story is a striking portrait of marriage, the meaning of family, and the legacy of love an individual can leave.
The Italian author, Paulo Giordano, is a Ph.D. in particle physics (the same as the narrator). His first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, published in 2008, catapulted the then 26-year old author into the literary spotlight when it won the Strega Prize, the most prestigious Italian literary award.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 6. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 1 for a discussion of Like Family at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.