An orphan in the family storm

How could they give me up? This painful question drives the narrative of A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s unforgettable Italian novel. It troubles the unnamed narrator who’s caught between two families, and as her story unfolds, we’re seductively drawn into her confusion.

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

The girl’s birth family, struggling to put food on the table, gave the girl in infancy to a privileged, childless aunt and uncle who provided dance lessons and beautiful clothes. The girl grew up thinking they were her real parents, but one August afternoon, when she’s 13 years old, the girl is sent back. That’s when A Girl Returned opens, our narrator climbing the stairs to her unknown birth family’s apartment with a suitcase and a bagful of shoes. She believes she’s being returned because her adoptive mother is critically ill, except there’s no word of confirmation, no discussion.

I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.

The girl must sleep with her 10-year-old, bed-wetting sister Adriana in the same room with the brothers. The contrast from her refined upbringing to the chaos of poverty is stark. She’s asked to pluck a dinner chicken but doesn’t know how; she peels tomatoes in the dirty basement with her siblings next to an old mattress and a headless doll, and when the bucket tips over, she moves to throw out the peeled tomatoes now covered in dust. Adriana “with a quick, adult move” retrieves the tomatoes and stares at her sister to say nothing is to be wasted. The girl writes to her adoptive mother and begs to be brought home. The response is a new bunk bed delivered to the front door and a weekly allowance.

These and other evocative scenes profoundly capture the narrator’s efforts to adapt to her family’s turmoil and indifference, from the strict mother’s lack of empathy to the sexually provocative gestures of the oldest brother, Vincenzo. She’s a vulnerable outsider taken under the wing of the soft but cunning Adriana, a child made wise by lack of enough basic needs. Meanwhile, the question of why the aunt gave up her adopted daughter persists, creating irreparable emptiness and raging fury in the returned girl. How could it not, when the aunt and uncle leave the beach house where she grew up without providing a new address? And, after Vincenzo meets a tragic end, when the aunt shows up at a time she knows the girl won’t be home?

The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family. I was the arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.

By using an unnamed narrator, the author firmly attaches us to the questioned abandonment of a girl who’s a victim of family hardship and misguidance. She’s created with unsentimental but magical allure as the truth she desires becomes paramount. This is a slim novel of less than 200 pages, elegantly crafted with a keen sensitivity for family shame that builds, with subtle intensity, toward an astonishing, realistic answer.

A Girl Returned is the third novel of Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio and the first to be published in English. It’s translated by Ann Goldstein, who also translated Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. The publisher is Europa Editions.

A version of this review was broadcast on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM in central Ohio.

2 thoughts on “An orphan in the family storm

  1. This is not Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s first book to be translated into English, even though Europa Editions claims that it is so. Calisi Press published both of Donatella’s previous books, My Mother Is a River and Bella Mia. Both titles are still available.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and making this clarification about Di Pietrantonio’s first books published in English. And you are the translator of those books! After reading your comment, I read about Calisi Press and your career change to “[bring] female Italian writers to an English market.” Europa indeed does say A Girl Returned is the first to be published in English in the author’s bio on the dust jacket. I assume it’s an oversight, but I’m sure that’s frustrating for you. Again, thank you for the clarification.

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