At 13, a girl learns that the couple who raised her are not, in fact, her parents, and she is abruptly sent from the family she’s known to the family she hasn’t. First she is an only child in a middle-class world: She eats well, takes ballet and swimming lessons. Then she is one of six children in a family being swallowed up by poverty.
That girl, who narrates the gorgeous “A Girl Returned,” doesn’t have a name — not one, anyway, that the reader is privy to. “I was the Arminuta, the one who was returned,” she explains. That’s the closest she gets to a name. Nor is she sure anymore how she should refer to her mother — either one of them. Even in her mind, she can’t quite call her mother what she really is: her aunt. As for the woman to whom she’s been returned, she tries out various tags, including “my other mother,” “the woman who had conceived me” and “the woman,” before settling on “the mother,” that definite article sticking out like a thorn.
This is Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s third novel, but her first to appear in English (thanks to the marvelous Ann Goldstein, well known for her translations of Elena Ferrante). It is an achingly beautiful book, and an utterly devastating one. The story takes place in Abruzzo, central Italy, in the mid-1970s.
The girl is offered no explanations for her return to her first family. She is dropped off one day with a bag of clothes and shoes. “You’re here,” the mother says. “Put down your things.” She is soon crowded into a bedroom with three rough brothers and a younger sister, Adriana. She doesn’t see her adoptive parents anymore, although they occasionally drop off gifts — oranges, money, even a bunk bed. They always seem to come by when she is away.
In the meantime, she tries to adjust. She is unused to chores, to caring for a baby, to fighting over portions at meals. At school, she excels, but the more practical skills seem to evade her, and Adriana picks up the slack. “Of the two of us,” she notes, “I am the one who seems less fit for life.”
Di Pietrantonio writes with deceptive simplicity. Every scene — every detail — is as meticulously rendered as a grain of sand. There is no sentimentality here, no excess at all, but delicacy of feeling, and depth.
It isn’t until the novel’s end that the girl comes to understand why she’s been given away. She’s a kind of changeling, and she can’t seem to embed herself in a world where she seems unwanted. But for all its anguish, the novel is never despairing or bleak. The characters are so precisely drawn, they seem to actually breathe. There is humor here, and sympathy to go around. Now, especially, we would do well to consider the plight of children who are roughly separated from the lives they have known.
Natalia Holtzman was named a 2018 emerging critic by the National Book Critics Circle. Her writing can be found in the Rumpus, Electric Literature, the Ploughshares blog and elsewhere. On Twitter: @NataliaHoltzman.
A Girl Returned
By: Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 160 pages, $16.