Working at a bookstore in Berkeley in the years after college, Gabriele becomes intrigued by the orders of signor Vietri, a customer from Rome whose numerous purchases grow increasingly mystical and esoteric. Restless and uncertain of her future, Gabriele quits her job and, landing in Rome, decides to look up Vietri. Unable to locate him, she begins a quest to unearth the well-concealed facts of his life.
Following a trail of obituaries and military records, a memoir of life in a village forgotten by modernity, and the court records of a communist murder trial, Gabriele meets an eclectic assortment of the city's inhabitants, from the widow of an Italian prisoner of war to members of a generation set adrift by the financial crisis. Each encounter draws her unexpectedly closer to her own painful past and complicated family history.
Gabriele, the 24-year-old narrator of Nicola DeRobertis-Theye’s absorbing debut, looks outward, rather than inward ... That all of this dense, difficult history unfolds naturally in the scope of Gabriele’s present-day story — she does, of course, eventually contact her aunts and cousins, and allow herself to be brought into their fold — speaks yards to DeRobertis-Theye’s deft, masterly storytelling ... deeply gratifying ... This complex, substantive debut offers a singular and transfixing take on the nature of identity — both national and personal — and the dangers of secrecy, both national and personal. And, of course, what it means to come of age in a broken world, a world that has been broken for generations.
... a coolly observed literary deconstruction ... this wandering bildungsroman unfolds as self-realization: gradually, thoughtfully, around the metaphor of city as self. This meditation on history, identity and family questions how and why we form the stories we tell about ourselves ... Suited to patient readers seeking something measured and esoteric, who, like Gabriele, prefer questions to answers.
This is a sprawling, languid book, constructed from rambling, unhurried paragraphs that take many detours into the nooks and crannies of Rome. Readers who are interested in the Italian experience will find themselves immersed in it, even when the protagonist lacks focus. Gabriele shines most brightly when she is on the hunt for a new clue. Recommended for thoughtful readers who appreciate both the interior and exterior journey.