'Like Family' Unfortunately, Is a Story as Lifeless as Its Central Subject
Like Family is full of worthwhile scattered sentiments, but there isn’t enough appeal or momentum between them to make enduring the entire work worthwhile.
Like FamilyPublisher: Pamela Dorman
Length: 160 pages
Author: Paolo Giordano
Publication date: 2015-12
One of the greatest ways to honor someone is to immortalize them within a creative work. From Eric Clapton’s seminal song, “Layla”, and The Mars Volta’s astounding first album, De-Loused in the Comatorium, to Jonathan Safran Foer’s revered debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, to Andy Warhol’s iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, artists have always found interesting and poignant ways to represent the stories and spirits of real-life people via transposed accounts.
In his third novel, Like Family, Italian writer Paolo Giordano (The Human Body, The Solitude of Prime Numbers) attempts to do the same, as the work centers on recollections about a deceased housekeeper/nanny named Mrs. A. Unfortunately, while the story and details surely mean a lot to those who lived through the actual situations, there’s little here to captivate or affect outside spectators. In other words, despite some elegant poeticisms here and there, the majority of Like Family is repetitious, boring, and even somewhat difficult to follow at times, offering very little reason to remember it.
In a brief foreword, Giordano tells readers that “There really was a Mrs. A. in my life. She stayed in my house, shared life with my family for a few years, then she had to leave us... I’ve changed most of the names and I’ve changed several details, but not what I felt was the nature of Mrs. A. And, certainly, not was my feeling towards her”. Without a doubt, the unnamed narrator (who, like Giordano, is a physicist), wants readers to know how impactful Mrs. A. was; however, one never gets a strong enough sense of who these people are or how they interacted to truly feel connected to anything that happens to them. In fact, it often seems like they don’t even like each other.
To reference a common rule of writing fiction, there’s too much telling in Like Family and not enough showing, so readers are left reading about how Mrs. A. “was the only real witness of the enterprise we embarked on day after day, the sole observer of what held us together...” rather than becoming invested in crucial actions and dialogues that speak volumes about these people.
In terms of continuity and structure, Like Family is occasionally difficult to follow due to abrupt switches in tense (between past and present). This could be a consequence of the translation, but it’s a problem nonetheless. The narrator may be recalling something that ensued already, yet he speaks about it as if it’s happening in the moment. Sure, this may be helpful in some ways when it comes to the active vs. passive voice, but more often than not, it’s just confusing, and it definitely hinders your immersion. For example, the following exchange implies that it’s occurring in the present, but the entire book is a recollection:
They argue so heatedly that her mother quickly leaves the house, offended. After less than a month, we stop asking her to come, and she doesn’t offer to return. A brief experience with an au pair doesn’t work out any better. Nora [the narrator’s wife] finds her slow and apathetic; she complains that the girl doesn’t know Italian well enough to understand her instructions and that she has no sense of order.
Furthermore, there really isn’t a clear timeline or strong plot going on; rather, the narrator jumps around different anecdotes without a clear sense of order or purpose. It reads like a hodgepodge of memories that aren’t cohesive or substantial enough to be gripping. Frankly, one could more or less read the chapters in any order and it would flow just as smoothly.
Although Like Family doesn’t work as a whole for several reasons, there are some aspects that Giordano pulls off very well. For one, the relationship between the narrator and Nora is fairly complex and nuanced, demonstrating moments of love, tension, and heartache that feel authentic and touching. Perhaps the strongest of these moments comes roughly halfway through the novel, when the narrator asks Nora if she would stick by him through a terminal illness like Mrs. A. had done with her deceased partner, Renato:
Nora’s right hand went to the lock of hair that curls behind her ear, a strand that remains hidden except when she gathers her hair back, and that my fingers always go searching for. She started twisting and tugging it. “I don’t know. I think so,” but for a moment she had hesitated. For the rest of the evening, we kept away from each other.
In addition, Giordano fills the book with bittersweet philosophical appraisals about love, death, and youth that, on their own, are quite profound and poetic. When the narrator addresses the deceased Mrs. A. about the paintings she’d left behind, for instance, he offers into a profound remark about how death alters our view of the past:
You would have been better off thinking about it more, because your common sense wasn’t enough to save you or your possessions. The end does not pardon us even the slightest of faults, even the most innocent of failings.
In the end, Like Family is more worthwhile for its scattered sentiments than its overarching narrative. There are introspective segments about morality, mortality, and the like peppered throughout, but the work as a whole suffers from a lack of unity, clarity, and compelling characters and situations. Individual passages are eloquent enough, but there isn’t enough appeal or momentum between them to make enduring the entire work worthwhile. It’s a valiant effort for sure, but it’s also too forgettable and lifeless (no pun intended) to be enjoyable.