Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Meet her here.)
A Sister’s Story is the sequel of A Girl Returned, in which the unnamed narrator is returned without warning or reason to her birth parents at the age of 13. From being an only child in a comfortable household, the girl becomes one of many in an impoverished, rough and seemingly loveless one. I would recommend reading A Girl Returned before approaching A Sister’s Story, in order to see the formation of the central relationship between Arminuta (the returned one, as I shall now refer to her) and her younger sister, Adriana.
The two girls are now adults. Arminuta has completed her education and is now a working academic, happily married to the dentist Piero. Living in an apartment with a view of the sea, bought by his parents. Adriana left school early and became embroiled in a tempestuous on/off relationship with the fisherman, Raphael, living in Borgo Sud, the fisherman’s area of Pescara. The sisters, who despite their differences did love one another, are no longer close.
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.
One day Adriana appears at Arminuta’s door with a babe in arms. You have to take us in for a while, she says, offering no further explanation, but, it is clear she is afraid. Raphael is nowhere to be found.
Arminuta, given her issues with abandonment, is not one to turn her sister away, despite the complications of their relationship. Nor is Piero. Is he naturally good-hearted, or is he happy that his wife now has a distraction? Because he’s hiding something and Adriana understands what her trusting, compliant sister does not. She warns Arminuta to pay close attention …
After the divorce, Arminuta moves to France, returning only after receiving news of Adriana’s dreadful accident. Or was it?
This is a dramatic domestic narrative, at times unpleasant and violent. The real depth is found in the baring of Arminuta’s soul. That someone can be so generous is astonishing, given the cruelty inflicted on her at such a young age (abandoned not once, but twice). Her devastation at being abandoned again by Piero is all too understandable, and yet she does not paint him as a monster. That role is reserved for Adriana’s Raphael, and to a lesser extent for her father. As for her mother, the woman who gave her away as a baby, and took her back as a teenager, despite the complicated feelings, there is an unspoken but invisible bond, and it is Arminuta who cares for her during her final illness. Her many siblings fail to make an appearance.
The complexity of these human relationships is reflected in the telling. For this is not a chronological narrative. Arminuta’s thoughts and memories wave their way back and forth through time, and keeping one’s bearings can be tricky. The advantage of this is that it allows di Pietrantonio to play the past against the present. Nowhere is that more effective than when Arminuta’s memories of the delight of courtship and the happiness of her wedding are interwoven with Piero’s sordid confessions.
Life can be messy sometimes, and Arminuta’s life, through no fault if her own, is very messy. It is testament to her resilience and generosity of spirit that she refuses to become embittered and rises above almost all provocations. It hasn’t happened yet, but I have a feeling that all will come good in the end.