#LiteraryWives: Ties by Domenico Starnone

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Ties by Domenico Starnone

Goodreads Synopsis: Ties is the story of a marriage. Like many marriages, this one has been subject to strain, to attrition, to the burden of routine. Yet it has survived intact. Or so things appear. The rupture in Vanda and Aldo’s marriage lies years in the past, but if one looks closely enough, the fissures and fault lines are evident. Their marriage is a cracked vase that may shatter at the slightest touch. Or perhaps it has already shattered, and nobody is willing to acknowledge the fact.

SPOILERS AHEAD

I think their marriage is a vase that has already shattered, they tried to put it back together again but there were way too many pieces missing for the vase to hold any water, killing the flowers within.

Ties is a short novel made up of three sections. The premise is common enough – the husband leaves the wife for another woman, leaving her with two young children. But the way the author tells the story is a bit different. Book One is from the perspective of the wife Vanda, Book Two from the husband Aldo, and Book Three from their two children. I thought this was an interesting and effective way of seeing things from all sides. (Whether their perspectives feel authentic is up to you to decide.)

Book One: Unsurprisingly, Vanda is hurt and angry. She sends letters to a largely unresponsive husband. Over the course of four years, during which he is absent from their lives, Vanda struggles mentally and financially, and is then faced with a request by her husband to reconnect with his children.

Book Two: This section starts off with Vanda and Aldo as a couple in their seventies – they are going on vacation. When they return they find their home vandalized and their cat missing. This is very upsetting, and they wonder who could have done it and why. Worried about his wife, Aldo sends her to bed and begins the process of putting things back in order. But he gets sidetracked by his memories – memories of his life with Lidia for those four years before he went back to his marriage. It’s made clear that he loved Lidia and that he loves her still. Despite this, and in a gradual way, he made his way back to Vanda and the kids. But Vanda was a different person now and their marriage was a different marriage.

Book Three: Reading about the grown kids’ problems in life, and with each other, it’s apparent that they did not cope well with their mother’s instability and their parents’ rocky relationship. They haven’t spoken to each other in a long time, but are forced to one night as they check on their parents’ house and cat.

The only ties that counted for our parents were the ones they’ve tortured each other with their whole lives.

I was left thinking it would have been better had their father never come back at all.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Aldo seemed to believe that one should be faithful to oneself and follow one’s passions. Apparently at the cost of everyone else. He enjoyed his freedom with Lidia, but as soon as he started trying to brings his kids into the picture things didn’t feel as pleasant and carefree.

She [Vanda] was a good-natured woman, reasonable, so I struggled to register that she would not be easily appeased. It didn’t matter to her that the institution of marriage was in crisis, that the family was in its death throes, that fidelity was a virtue of the petty bourgeoisie. She wanted our marriage to be a miraculous exception. She wanted our family to be healthy. She wanted us, always, to be faithful to one another.

In the evening, choosing my words carefully, I tried to explain that it wasn’t a matter of betrayal, that I had enormous respect for her, that real betrayal was when you betrayed your own instinct, your needs, your body, yourself.

After getting back together, he continues to be unfaithful to Vanda, but has learned to keep it a secret.

In Vanda’s case, the whole experience has left her a bitter woman. She has come to believe that finding someone is just random. And that she believes she has wasted her life playing a long and tortured game with Aldo.

I was young, I felt attracted, I didn’t know what a random thing attraction is. For years I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t unhappy. I realized late that others intrigued me, neither more nor less than you did… All you had to do was insist on that initial curiosity, and the curiosity would become attraction, the attraction would grow and lead to sex, sex would call for repetition, repetition would establish a habit, a need. But I thought I was supposed to love only you, forever, and so I looked the other way… You were certainly nothing special for me, nothing intense. You simply allowed me to consider myself a grown woman: Living together, sex, kids. When you left me I suffered, most of all, for that part of me I had uselessly sacrificed to you. And when I welcomed you home, I only did it to restore to myself what you’d taken… I never believed that you’d repented, that you’d realized you wanted me and no one else. I thought every day about how much you had deceived me… And so I told myself: Let’s see how long he can stand it before he runs back to her. But the more I tormented you the more you caved… Years, decades have gone by playing this game and we’ve made a habit of it… Why? Maybe for the kids. But this morning I’m not so sure about it anymore, I feel indifferent to them, too. Now that I’m nearly eighty years old I can say that I like almost nothing about my life. I don’t like you, I don’t like them, I don’t like myself.

I wonder how many other women (and men) go through life not happy, but not unhappy either? Kind of a stalemate, waiting to see if something (or someone) will push you one way or the other. In Vanda’s case, she should have taken the split and run, but she had a dream of the perfect family. Maybe we shouldn’t dream so big. Maybe there is no such thing.

What about you? Do you believe love is just a habit we get into with a random person? Do you think a person should follow their desires at any cost?


Next Literary Wives: October 7, 2019: Happenstance by Carol Shields… Join us!

28 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: Ties by Domenico Starnone

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I read this several years ago. What I remember about it most is the utter fury encapsulated in Vanda’s opening letters, so incendiary it felt lke the pages might catch fire! All that energy leaks away into bitterness, as you say. She might have been able to do something with it if Aldo had stayed away, and I think you’re right about the children. Thanks for reminding me of this one, Naomi. A short but very powerful book.

    • Naomi says:

      I liked the fury in her letters, too. It reminded me a bit of the beginning of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud – all that anger.
      I got this book suggestion from your blog – so thanks! I enjoyed it! 🙂

  2. whatmeread says:

    See, this is my problem with this book, your other reader’s comments. What they remember is Vanda’s fury. Well, wouldn’t you be angry if your husband, not just left you, but left you for three years without even seeing his own kids or giving you any money for their support (although I got that that is up for interpretation—she say she didn’t, and he says he did)? Yet, we are more left with how her anger corrodes the rest of their relationship. It’s as if the second and third parts of the book make us forget the first one, or more accurately, that all we remember is her anger and not the reason for it. I hinted at this when I said that I felt sympathetic to her at the beginning, but he effectively removes your sympathy from her by making her such a virago. But she has reason to be angry and reason to mistrust. After all, he continues to see Lidia for his entire life. I feel like this book presents itself as an unbiased look at a twisted relationship but is actually very biased against Vanda.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see the bias, for sure. But I didn’t find that I ever stopped feeling sympathy for Vanda. If anything, I felt even worse for her by the end. I felt terrible that the whole incident pretty much ruined her life, and I felt bad that she wasn’t ever able to let the anger go. I felt awful for all four of them!

  3. wadholloway says:

    As a guy, and a guy what’s more who followed a fair bit of Aldo’s path, I’ve only slowly been brought to understand/be sympathetic to Whatmeread’s POV by the women around me – my ex-wife (who was sad mostly rather than angry), her sisters and my daughters.

    We’ve had a few shots at getting back together. I went off and married someone else for a while. And now (approaching retirement) we’re good friends. But there’s no doubt she feels betrayed.

    I have always read/preferred relationship books because I have an EQ of 0 and so I like to see how other people sort things out. And it’s less painfull than being lectured by my daughters!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s so interesting to hear your perspective on it, Bill! It’s true that Aldo really didn’t seem to get it – I don’t know if that was intentional, or not. But it made me angry that he didn’t get it.
      I love your honesty – thanks for the comment! 🙂

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    For me, love begins with passion, and moves into companionship.
    But generally, I think that we all expect too much of our partners. We expect them to be faithful love object (all the time, or at least whenever we’re in the mood for it), emotional support, companion, financial partner, helper around the house, parent to the kids, intellectual company, amusing host and guest with our friends, fond of the in-laws and so on. We get hurt and angry when the same is expected of us and we aren’t able to deliver. Because the job description is too hard for anyone to achieve.
    I think the secret of a good marriage is not to have unrealistic expectations.
    I haven’t read this book, but I think that dreaming of a perfect marriage is a sure way not to have one.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, good point! I think you’re right about our expectations of our partners being too high. I know, for myself, I felt so disappointed at first that my husband and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on parenting, but felt much better about it once I learned to accept it and adapt. We can’t all be everything the other person has ever hoped for!

  5. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’d judged this book by its cover and thought it was a comedy (tripping over shoelaces); in fact, it sounds rather bleak! I, too, note the similarities to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I recently DNFed. It’s such a recurring theme in literature (and you must find it especially often in these Literary Wives books): a marriage goes stagnant and one or the other partner makes a break for freedom. It must be a difficult balancing act for an author to try to create sympathy for all the characters, even when some of them make unforgivable mistakes. And as the reader, do you cheer for the character who gets away, or feel angry on behalf of the one left behind, or both? I guess that depends.

    (That’s neat that you’re reading Happenstance next. Do you have the edition where the two stories start at either end and meet in the middle, and you turn the book upside down to switch between them? It was my first Shields book, read in c. 2006. I’ll be reading another of her novels soon, Unless, for my November book club meeting.)

    • Naomi says:

      I can see why you thought that based on the cover, but, no, it’s definitely not a comedy.
      One of the things I find so interesting (and why I haven’t yet tired of reading books about wives and marriage) is the take/approach of the subject by different writers. This is a good example of a fresh take, because of the structure. I especially thought it was brilliant to get a perspective from the grown children.
      And, yes, who you cheer for totally depends on the situation/characters of each book. In this case, I sympathized with Vanda. And not just because Aldo left her, but it was his attitude about leaving her that made me angry.

      Yes, I have the edition you describe. I’m looking forward to it!
      I hope you like Unless as much as I did!

  6. JacquiWine says:

    This is an interesting pick for your online book group. While I haven’t read this author myself, I do recall seeing very positive reviews of another of his novels, Trick, a story about elderly man and his grandson. A quieter book than this one, I think.

  7. Lynn Gerrard says:

    I love your quotes and your questions at the end, Naomi! I tend to agree with Kay regarding the fact that it appears we are to blame Vanda for creating such a toxic environment for all of them, when really, this was all Aldo’s fault. For me, this brought many memories to the surface, as my ex-husband acted somewhat similarly. Admittedly, these memories are ones I would prefer remain buried, but it’s probably a good idea to take them out and observe them once in awhile. If nothing else than to simply acknowledge that my children and I survived and thrived, regardless, and overall, I don’t believe my children suffer from any such lingering effects as did Sandro and Anna. I truly felt so very sorry for them!

    These questions are exactly what I was left with in the aftermath of reading this book. While I do believe each individual should have the right to be happy, there are better ways of handling that. In my own experience, I have seen all to often that males are clueless or perhaps just lazy. They refuse to simply end the marriage and carry on being a “part-time” father as best they can. They’d rather be duplicitous and have affairs, etc. My thoughts always return to the children. What is best for them? Would it be better not to have “marriage” as a legal construct?

    I did feel as if the children particularly may have been better off if Aldo hadn’t returned. Yet I don’t know that Vanda could have fully recovered mentally/emotionally and provided any better environment. More questions than answers with this one! 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I think Vanda would at least have had a chance if Aldo hadn’t come back. I think his presence was a daily reminder to her. I’m not so sure about the children. I’m so glad to hear yours turned out well (although, not surprised)! 🙂

  8. The Paperback Princess says:

    I love what you said about their marriage being a shattered vase! So eloquent and perfect!
    I think Aldo’s perspective is probably very common among males, especially in cultures that cater to them. Marriage is just another state in which they do as they like, but with the benefit of being cared for.

    I didn’t feel bad for him though. I didn’t feel like Vanda torturing him for the rest of his days was unfair. You reap what you sow, pal!

    I think the entire family would have been better off had Aldo never come back.

    • Naomi says:

      I think we agree on pretty much everything here!
      It’s so hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that most men actually think that way. I wonder what my husband would say…

  9. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    How tragic Vanda’s paragraph was! Just a crappy situation all around. I’ll stick to my murder mysteries, LOL… 😉

    Oooh, Happenstance next! I love Carol Shields. As I dimly recall, that’s a good one. I’m due for a reread of all her novels sometime. She’s worth it.

  10. madamebibilophile says:

    The multi-perspective approach sounds an interesting way to approach such a painful experience for everyone. I’ve not heard of this author at all but capturing a woman’s rage so powerfully is really impressive.

  11. Karissa says:

    This sounds very interesting though kind of sad. I can’t imagine having a four year gap in a marriage and then continuing on like that. I don’t think love is random. I think all relationships require work but with the right person the work is easier. And I do believe marriage means sometimes (not always) putting another person’s happiness above your own desires.

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