A Sister’s Story by Donatella Di Pietrantonio tr. Ann Goldstein

We first encountered the two sisters in an earlier novel, A Girl Returned. At the time they first met, the elder, the narrator, was being returned to her parents without explanation, 13 years after having been adopted and raised by another couple.

She had given me to another woman to bring up, and yet I had remained her daughter. I will be forever.

Though raised in different neighbourhoods, circumstances, economic conditions and under extremely different parenting, from the moment Adriana first encountered her previously unknown older sister, she became attached, fiercely. Of their mother, our narrator had mixed feelings.

She roused in me an inextricable knot of tenderness and revulsion…

My mother occupied me inside, true and fierce. She remained in large part unknown: I never penetrated the mystery of her hidden affection.

Ann Goldstein Italian literatureIn A Sister’s Story, we encounter them again; the novel opens with the recall of a graduation celebration at Piero’s parent’s country home. Again the novel is narrated by the unnamed elder sister.

I have a photograph of the two of us, in love, looking at each other, Piero with the laurel on his head, eyes of devotion. At the edge of the frame Adriana appears: she entered the shot at the last moment, and her image is blurry, her hair draws a brown wake. She has never been tactful, she interjects herself into everything that has to do with me as if it were hers, including Piero. For her he wasn’t very different from a brother, but nice. My sister is laughing blithely at the lens, ignorant of what was to come for us.

As the narrative returns to the present, the elder sister awakes in a hotel, having travelled overnight from Grenoble back to Italy, confused memories interrupt her thoughts, the result of a telephone call she received that set her out on this journey.

In a now familiar style, unique to Donatella Di Pietrantiono, the present is a mystery, we don’t know why she has returned to where her family came from or what the phone call was about, there is much to fill in since she left. It is clear she has cut ties with many people from her past; the phone call reluctantly yet urgently drawing her back.

Related but moulded by different values and role models the sisters held different aspirations and expectations and behaved nothing like each other. They are deeply connected strangers.

As children we were inseparable, then we had learned to lose each other. She could leave me without news of herself for months, but it had never been this long. She seemed to obey a nomadic instinct: when a place no longer suited her, she abandoned it. Every so often our mother said to her: you’re a Gypsy. Later I was, too, in another way.

photo of teenage girls sitting on the pavement

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The last time the sister’s saw each other, Adriana arrived on her doorstep with a baby, named after their belated brother Vincenzo, denying she was in any danger.

The novel, while moving towards the revelation of the telephone call, explores the complicated relationship between sisters who’ve been formed and wired differently, their desire and struggle to be around each other, their bond and indifference, their separate struggles and opposite ways of dealing with them.

I don’t know when I lost her, where our intimacy was stranded. I can’t trace it to a precise moment, a decisive episode, a quarrel. We only surrendered to distance, or maybe it was what we were secretly looking for: repose, shaking each other off.

It’s an enjoyable read, enhanced by having read the earlier story;  while the first novel was compelling and urgent in a way that made me not want to put it down, the sequel was reflective and mysterious. I enjoyed seeing how the sisters evolved into adulthood in such different ways, trying to hold on to their connection, challenged by the ongoing effect of those formative years.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

8 thoughts on “A Sister’s Story by Donatella Di Pietrantonio tr. Ann Goldstein

  1. “the complicated relationship between sisters who’ve been formed and wired differently, their desire and struggle to be around each other, their bond and indifference, their separate struggles and opposite ways of dealing with them.” That sounds very realistic… I am a bit sceptical of those stories where siblings meet up after decades apart and claim to have heaps of things in common.

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  2. I get the sense that you liked this but didn’t love it as much as the first one. Would that be a fair assessment, Claire? A Girl Returned was a big hit with my book group when it came out, so I’ll mention the follow-up to the group, albeit with the caveat of how it differs from the first one, e.g. your summary on how the follow-up feels more mysterious and reflective (or less urgent/gripping) than its predecessor.

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    • I did really like it, but there’s that inevitable comparison or memory of the previous read, just because it’s a sequel. I think the first was dramatic in a different way because of the shocking premise of a girl being returned to her biological parents. This one explores the sibling relationship in adulthood, and though it’s not directly referred to, a sensitive reader will pick up on the effect of those very different formative years in shaping who they have become. I think they make an excellent pairing and conversation for a book group, that effect of class, environment, nature and nurture on sibling relationships, when they’ve not experienced the same home life as children.

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    • It is indeed, I don’t know that it is something one can generalise about, but somehow reading about these different experiences shows us something about the things we can have in common without knowing it previously and those that make us different.
      In my opinion, it is the knowing that then allows a person to let go. In this story the coming together is important, as is the separation.

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  3. Beautifully written review. This novel and its exploration of the sisters’ relationship and the one with the mother sounds so interesting.

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  4. Europa has such interesting stories. I didn’t fall into the Ferrante volumes as so many have (but perhaps I’ll try again another time, I’ve only read the first) but I have loved all the others I’ve read (even the ones that I’m not entirely sure I understood fully heheh).

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    • I’ve slowly made my way through Ferrante’s other novels and I really am a fan of her style and ability.

      Pietrantonio is different, there’s something held back that creates space for the reader to reflect and imagine the situation, whereas with Ferrante it’s so dramatic you’re kind of along for the ride.

      I highly recommend A Girl Returned as a starting place.

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