Reviewed by John Mauk
A Review of Like Family
By Paolo Giordano
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Dec 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0525428763
Paolo Giordano’s third book, Like Family, moves like a funeral procession—car after car rolling quietly to a ceremonious conclusion. We know that conclusion from the first page: the nanny dies. And we quickly learn not to hope otherwise. But along the way, between the grim diagnosis and funeral, we endure more than the nanny’s illness. We come to realize something about bourgeois life and its incapacities.
Much of the story is recollection. The narrator, a young husband, explains how he and his wife, Nora, hire Babette, also known as Mrs. A, to help with their first pregnancy. When the child is born, Babette stays on. All parties involved realize the young parents have no domestic reflexes. Babette evolves from nurse to nanny. As the child grows into a toddler, Babette becomes the nucleus—the emotional and psychological center—of the family. While the narrator and his wife go about their careers, fingering through the particulars of professional advancement, Babette raises the child, Emanuele, and maintains the semblance of home life. They all three (husband, wife, son) come to depend on Babette’s fussy regimes, her whole-hearted attention to quotidian life. In this sense, Like Family is a tribute, a eulogy for a lost parental figure. But here’s what really happens: As the story rolls, the distance between reader and narrator grows. We spool outward and finally get far enough away to realize a truth: the narrator and his wife are not very good people. They are intelligent, complex, mannered and profoundly self-involved. They are good only in their grief.
At first, the young couple is sympathetic. They are, after all, grieving for their lost nanny and mother figure. But as the narrator recollects their lives—how they came to need Babette, how they treated her, how they conformed to her domesticity—the young couple’s insecurities and nastier reflexes begin to show. As they are searching for an apartment in a diverse part of the city, Nora confesses, “I can’t live with the smell of Indian food permeating the stairs. I can’t live on that carpet, nor on those marbleized floors. And I don’t want to go walking through these streets with our child. By myself…. I’m spoiled, I know. And I’m very sorry.” This is an early sign of Nora’s reflexes. Later, the couple is discussing love—the kind that kept Babette next to her long-lost husband until then end. The narrator asks Nora if she could do it, if she’d stay by his side until the bitter end. “I don’t know,” she says. “I think so.”
At first, our narrator admits to and even apologizes for his wife’s coldness. But his characterizations become unqualified. He eventually admits that Nora is heartless—or at least incapable of heart. And through his own confessions, he becomes no better. Toward the end, he tells a story about his school days. A girl in his class—a girl he “even liked”—called every afternoon to chat. He admits telling her that the calls were unnecessary:
One day I had the guts to tell her not to call me anymore, because, unlike her, maybe, I had more important things to do. Wouldn’t it be better to see each other at the university or when we had a date? Couldn’t she do me a favor and hold whatever interesting thing she had to tell me until break time the next morning?
This is one of many confessions that surface and show that our narrator—the voice leading us through the months—is committed exclusively to his own insecurities and failings, that he measures all events, even Babette’s death, against them.
The realization is not sudden. The couple’s inability to love others doesn’t pop out at the end. Instead, it slowly moves to the foreground. It becomes the thing, the issue, standing in front of all elegiac sentiments. When I reached the final pages, I remembered the couple’s reluctance to visit Babette’s apartment despite her invitations, the narrator’s slightly dismissive description of its humble kitsch, the couple’s reckless attempts to manage their son’s learning disability, and one particular discussion in which Nora characterizes Babette’s love for her lost husband as “romantic and a little pathetic.” In other words, I awakened to a nagging sense—one that felt delicate and then prickly and then chafing. The survivors in Babette’s wake—the two people who take up the most narrative space—aren’t, haven’t been, worthy of Babette herself.
It’s tough for readers to realize they’ve spent time with characters they might otherwise condemn. We’d rather find some redeeming quality in those characters—if only to justify our complicity. But good fiction, great fiction, sometimes makes us confront how we become shareholders in bad stock. This happens, perhaps most famously, in Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (which I’ve always considered the second greatest literary work directly after One Hundred Years of Solitude). In Cholera, the narrator begins as a sympathetic romantic, a young man hopelessly in love with Fermina Daza. By the end of the novel, we realize that his romantic yearnings have turned him into a monster, a womanizer of the worst kind. The realization comes after hundreds of pages. And it’s that readerly experience—a slow emotional spooling out—that makes Cholera such an incredible and sophisticated work. Like Family creates the same experience and in a brief novella form. In short, I am saying that Giordano has done something incredible. It will be remembered and should be hailed.
For those who study fiction, form, or genre, Like Family should be required reading. It begins as a tribute but morphs into a eulogy for love itself, a stark realization that passionate and all-consuming love is far beyond the narrator, maybe beyond modernity. The story invites such an epic statement, but it also keeps us in check. Says the narrator himself, “Every age contains within itself the arrogant claim of catastrophe.”
About the reviewer: John Mauk has a PhD in rhetoric from Bowling Green State University and a Masters degree in language and literature from the University of Toledo. He writes and works at the intersection of rhetoric and fiction. He is a college professor and an avid student of philosophy. He currently teaches in the English department at Miami University of Ohio. His story collection, Fieldnotes for the Earthbound (Black Lawrence Press), will be available in August. Visit his website here: http://johnmauk.com/