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Novel set in Naples (uplifting and life-affirming)

29th November 2017

The Temptation to be Happy by Lorenzo Marone, novel set in Naples. Translated by Shaun Whiteside.

For those of you who perhaps have fewer years ahead of you than behind, and who are facing the darkening days of winter with some trepidation, then this debut novel from Lorenzo Marone is the book for you – an ultimately uplifting and life-affirming read.

Novel set in Naples

Cesare Annunziata is a curmudgeonly 77 year old, widowed and living alone in his Naples apartment. He has an uneasy relationship with his grown-up children; his daughter is a workaholic and irritates him because she won’t listen to his advice, and his homosexual son, Dante, annoys him because he won’t be honest about his sexual orientation. He spends his days either lurking around his apartment, thinking about the past and the mistakes he has made or else he’s involving himself with his two equally elderly neighbours. He’s hardly complimentary about either of them; Marino, who was once his friend, he describes as a near recluse and “an old pain” and Signora Vitaliano, according to Cesare, has a personal hygiene problem and an obsession with adopting stray cats. Cesare also visits Rossana, an aging prostitute, or “an old harridan” as he calls her, who nevertheless brings some joy into his life. But when a young couple move into the apartment block and it begins to look as if the young woman, Emma, is a victim of domestic abuse, Cesare and his two aging neighbours decide that they need to take action.

Marone doesn’t shy away from providing us with explicit details of Cesare’s aging body; we are repeatedly reminded about his trembling hands, his sagging skin and his dysfunctional penis. So why, I hear you ask, is this book about a decrepit old grump, who hasn’t a good word for anyone an uplifting read? Because it just is. Almost despite yourself, Cesare grows on you, as you learn about his real love for his little grandson, and his honest regrets over mistakes he has made in the past and his steadily growing affection for Rossana. By the end, the reader desperately wants him to succeed, despite his peccadillos. The novel finishes with a wonderful passage listing the things in life that Cesare values the most – things like the smell of new-born babies and the sound of a bubbling coffee pot on the gas and the sight of old courtyards with the washing hung out to dry. Inevitably, it makes the reader compile their own list and, perhaps, like Cesare, reflect happily that none of these most wonderful things diminish with age.

The Temptation to be Happy is that very rare thing – a book that can make you both laugh and cry. Cesare’s views on the world and his forthright opinions cannot help but make you smile and most of us will titter at the escapades of Cesare and chums as they set about trying to deal with Emma’s husband. But these lighter moments are juxtaposed with some quite shocking passages where the nature of domestic violence is exposed and some very poignant moments as Cesare expresses real regret over opportunities missed.

It is true that there are places in the novel where Cesare’s voice doesn’t ring quite true, but that, I think is down to translation difficulties and anyway is not enough to spoil the reader’s enjoyment. Set against that slight flaw is Marone’s undoubted skill demonstrated in some beautiful lyrical passages when he describes, through sounds alone, the way in which Naples differs so much district from district. That section, more than any other part of the novel, makes me want to visit the city and hear it for myself.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

You can buy his book through TripFiction and follow Lorenzo on Twitter, Facebook and if your Italian is good, then this is the link to his website

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