Trick by Domenico Starnone

I'm not sure yet how I feel about this one but maybe I can figure it out as I write.

Daniele Mallarico is a successful illustrator whose best days are behind him. At over 70 years of age he doesn't get as much, or as lucrative, work as he once did but he manages to keep his hand in. Recovering from minor surgery at home while working on illustrations for Henry James' short story, The Jolly Corner, he receives a call from his daughter, Betta. She asks if he can come to Naples to watch his four year old grandson while Betta and her husband attend a mathematics conference. His first instinct is to decline, but parental guilt sets in and he agrees.

All I knew of this book was that it told the story of a boy and his grandfather getting to know each other. It sounded charming, heartwarming. It was not. By the time I was done I wanted to throttle the kid and his parents. I understand the book is about the grandfather coming to terms with the changes that aging brings, but I found myself more focused on the boy and his emotional problems. He can't seem to distinguish fantasy from reality and he has no feeling except for himself. Children his age are capable of compassion for others, but when his grandfather is in real distress and needs his help, the boy calmly says no and goes to watch cartoons. This is the kind of child that ends up as the unsub on Criminal Minds.

Kirkus Reviews describes this book as "vivid and devastating" and it is truly both, so painful you want to look away, but so real and present that you can't. I was particularly drawn to the sections on Daniele's memories, and moved by the mental/emotional storm wrought by his desperation to find meaning in his later years and declining abilities. A fascinating character - passionate, intelligent, gifted, deeply flawed - he's facing the consequences of his less than stellar track record as husband, father and grandfather.

As he works on the illustrations for the James book, many parallels are drawn between the two stories. If you're going to read this one, it's a good idea to read at least a summary of The Jolly Corner first, and then the introduction to this book. It's a complicated story and I think all three are needed to gain an understanding of what the author is saying; even the title, that one word "Trick", can have different connotations. You'll probably spend more hours thinking about this one than actually reading its 191 pages, and that alone is a great reason to read it.

So in the end I did like it, not so much for the plot but for how it's told, because it's amazingly well-written and constructed. The story is multi-layered and the characters complicated and messy. It was exhilarating to be inside Daniele's head riding this mental roller-coaster with him. He's a great character. 

The four year old Mario...he's just creepy.  


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