One of Italy's most celebrated novelists offers the tale of Marco Carrera, a 40-year-old ophthalmologist whose life is rife with emotional challenges: the death of his sister, absence of his brother, elderly parents who need his care, a granddaughter he must raise and an enigmatic woman he loves. Through it all, Marco carries on with a noble stoicism that belies an intensity for living.
Everything that makes the novel worthwhile and engaging is here: warmth, wit, intelligence, love, death, high seriousness, low comedy, philosophy, subtle personal relationships and the complex interior life of human beings ... the wonderful (and relieved) feeling I had while reading this novel was that I was in the hands of a seasoned practitioner writing at that peak moment in a career where insight and experience in the form meet insight and experience in life ... Veronesi delivers Carrera’s story by moving backwards and forwards in time: the chapter titles tell us we’re in the 1970s, or in 2018, or 1988-1999 or, at the end, in 2030. Meanwhile, the form itself changes—sometimes we’re reading narrative, sometimes pure dialogue, sometimes letters, poetry, emails, inventories, postcards. The effect is to keep everything fresh and engaging. You remain alert. You sift. You piece the life together like a mosaic. Sure, there may be one or two tiles that you don’t love (a couple of chapters felt levered in, to me—as though Veronesi was trying to find a home for something he had written elsewhere), but these prove to be the exceptions and the overall effect is magnificent—moving, replete, beautiful.
The protagonist...can't see what's coming at him. Mr. Veronesi sharpens this irony by scrambling the presentation of Marco’s life, alternating between scenes of his youth and his snake-bitten adulthood, and frequently introducing the aftermath of an event before its origins. (Scenes of his acrimonious divorce, for instance, precede the story of his marriage.) This makes knowing gods of readers: we’re aware of every trap he blindly marches into. It’s a blunt but effective means of portraying him as a hostage to fate. The novel’s most memorable set pieces—one takes place at a high-stakes gambling hall, another describes the freak occurrences that save Marco from an airplane crash—evoke the designs of an unknown cosmic order ... It’s a stirring portrait, as Mr. Veronesi is an expert at playing on the reader’s deepest fears and hopes in emotionally involving ways—though for me the manipulations in the novel’s redemptive ending passed the limits of credulity. But there is no clear line that separates how much higher meaning readers want to believe in and how much they can finally accept.
What might have been a folly is a towering achievement ... In a bravado exercise in chronological orientation, which demands readers’ close attention, short chapters flit back and forth, from the 1970s to the near future, stopping off at key points in Marco’s life ... Veronesi is as sharp as a glass of grappa on the Italian obsession with appearance ... Veronesi chronicles Marco’s journey from childhood to parenthood and beyond with a light comic touch, a playfulness that focuses on his protagonist’s love of the quiet life ... It’s a testament to Veronesi’s competence that he can bring fun to such brooding themes. Not since William Boyd’s Any Human Heart has a novel captured the feast and famine nature of a single life with such invention and tenderness. Veronesi explores, with great humour, how the passage of time both expands and expunges the impact of events. And, he suggests, after the pounding of years it is only an individual’s character that determines whether or not the edifice will hold.