Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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I have to admit that I struggled with this book. I loved the beginning, a retelling of a 16th century legend explaining the origin of the stone statues of midgets that stand atop a section of wall surrounding the Ridolfi villa. It is pure Fitzgerald: funny and heart-breaking and bizarre. Plus it introduces a characteristic of the Ridolfis that drives the rest of the story: “a tendency towards rash decisions . . . intended to ensure other people’s happiness”.

Then we move to 1955 when the current count, Giancarlo Ridolfi finds himself torn between his determination to not mind about anything much anymore and his fierce love for his daughter Chiara. At 65, Giancarlo has survived two world wars and now lives in a portion of his decrepit palazzo in Florence with his eccentric sister, leaving the villa in the hands of a caretaker couple. Fresh out of a convent school in England, Chiara falls in love with the unsuitable Salvatore Rossi, a doctor from a village in Italy’s economically depressed south, and he with her, although they excel in misunderstandings, confusion, and awkward meetings.

There are many vivid characters. Giancarlo’s nephew Cesare runs the family farm and can hardly bring himself to speak at all. Chiara’s schoolfriend Barney is a rosy giantess who falls in love over and over but is always certain that she knows what is best for everyone. There is even a scene where a young Salvatore is taken by his father to meet Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini, close to death and severely crippled.

There are also many funny scenes that gently mock Vatican politicians, on-the-make art historians, English transplants, and others. It is a story about innocence, how so many of us act with good intent but poor understanding. It is also a story about happiness, how rare it is, how fleeting, and unequally distributed. And also, how our efforts to bestow happiness on another tend to backfire.

With this novel, Fitzgerald’s writing becomes more impressionistic, giving the reader more responsibility for connecting the pieces. I didn’t have a problem with the shifts in time, or parts of the story being told backwards. After all, Ridolfi does refer to the word for memory, and our memory is anything but linear.

But I did struggle, especially after the legend at the beginning, with what seemed like excessive backstory combined with a lack of necessary information. For example, we are told that Giancarlo’s brother inherited the farm and that he has a wife and son. Some pages later we are introduced to Cesare whose father was killed in the war. It is only several pages later that it becomes clear that Cesare is that nephew. The long digressions, the confusion and misunderstandings certainly do mirror the story, but they risk alienating the reader.

I’m glad I didn’t give up. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this view of some segments of Italian society in the mid 1950s, but I recognise much of what I found during my own travels there some decades later. The 1950s are an interesting period in Italy’s history, with World War II only recently ended, the remnants of Italy’s empire lost, and an economy still some years away from the “Economic Miracle”. These characters, with their varying approaches for facing an uncertain future, will stay with me for some time.

Have you been to Florence? What is your most vivid memory of that visit?

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