Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: HAPPY ENDING, by Francesca Duranti

Happy Ending, by Francesca Duranti. Published 1992 by Random House. Literary Fiction. Translation.

Happy Ending is a lovely, art-house movie of a book. Set on a Tuscan estate during a summer gathering of a wealthy Italian family, Happy Ending documents the end of an era and the beginning of another. Matriarch Violante is getting on in years and wants to pass her legacy onto her daughter-in-law Lavinia, widow of her beloved son and mother to her only grandchild Nicola. The family also includes Violante's other son Leopoldo and his American wife Cynthia, childless and estranged, and Aldo, a family friend and artist hopelessly in love with Lavinia, whose life has consisted of one bad boyfriend after the other since her husband's death.

Aldo narrates about half of the book. His chapters alternate with third-person chapters focusing on Cynthia and Leopoldo's or Lavinia's perspectives and private thoughts. Violante is the undisputed grande dame, a lady of the old school who writes cookbooks when she isn't managing her estate. She has always treated Lavinia like an overgrown child, even mothering Nicola in Lavinia's place. Aldo describes Violante:
...a tough customer, I'd venture, even for a real writer. So limited and yet so Olympian. And not a bit picturesque. A perfect house, a famous table, her cookbooks translated all over the world. Not to mention the garden. And the way she keeps a tight rein on everything, disregarding all that remains outside her pale. The time lapse between action and reaction must be short, the possibility of intereference from outside factors must be foreseeable, if not exactly controllable. And when things don't go as planned- aphids eat her roses, her favorite son stages a tragedy and concludes it with his abrupt death- she doesn't blame anybody, doesn't tear her hair out. Instead she cuts of the nibbled stems, buries her son, and gets back to work. 
The family gathering is disrupted somewhat with the arrival of a friend of Nicola's who leaves his mark on Lavinia and Aldo and on Cynthia and Leopoldo. Happy Endings is all about the choices we make for ourselves, how we make our lives and with whom, and why. The torch will get passed in this family, but for once Violante will not get her way, because this time her way isn't what's best for the family, for her heir apparent or for her even. Someone else will take his place at the table, make the best of things, and create a truly happy ending for this troubled but loyal clan. I love this passage from Aldo about accepting the life you've made:
I can imagine a wealthy pharmacist [Aldo's parents wanted him to be a pharmacist] with his own little villa on what was once millionaires' row-wife, two children, a false antique bed covered with a handwoven, spun-silk bedspread, a VCR, a Rotary Club card, a passion for organized tours (China, Seychelles, Las Vegas, the Arctic Circle) and slides, a vicuna overcoat: the point of intersection between what could have been and what has come true. That mythical piece of clothing serves me as a metaphorical bridge between the two existences. Without regrets, I leave the pharmacist in his little world and turn toward the image of myself as I really am, as I have chosen to be, solitary and eccentric on top of a tower, behind binoculars.
This is the kind of book I can see being made into one of those candlelit movies where everyone sits around a big picnic table with hurricane lamps and plates and wine glasses overflowing. Love is discovered, rediscovered and even regretted a little. It's a perfect little charmer of a story, and only a little bittersweet too.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


bermudaonion said...

That is a lovely passage.

Zibilee said...

This does sound like a perfect beach read, and one that emotionally encompasses so much. I am curious now about the relationship between the mother-in-law and the daughter, and also the way she sometimes oversteps her bounds. A very tempting tale, it seems!