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Author: M.A. Orthofer
Newspaper: Complete Review
Date: Feb 26 2017

Ties is a novel about a marriage, of Aldo and Vanda, and of the effects of their relationship on their two children, Sandro and Anna. The three-part presentation of the story is unusual and effective.

The first section of the novel consists of a handful of letters Vanda wrote to Aldo, beginning twelve years into their marriage, when Aldo fell in love with another woman, Lidia. He eventually abandoned his family for her, but the final letter, four years after the affair began, suggests he wants to at least reëstablish a relationship with his children. The second and longest section of the novel finds Aldo and Vanda heading off on a summer vacation; it is four decades later, and they are now in their mid-seventies; obviously Aldo returned to the fold.

Vanda's letters to her husband give only one side of the collapse of the family, but Aldo's failings are so blatant as be essentially indefensible; there's little doubt when Vanda calls him out: "Jesus, you really are a weak and confused man: insensitive, superficial". Vanda's letters range from searching for answers to desperation and resignation; whatever excuses Aldo offers when they communicate -- Vanda mentions some --, there are no real answers. The letters do give a glimpse of the collapse of the family, Aldo rapidly distancing himself from his wife and children, unable to maintain a relationship even with the eager-to-please kids. That Lidia is much younger -- a nineteen-year-old, fifteen years his junior when the relationship begins -- might suggest it won't last, but it's certainly more than a brief fling.

Jumping ahead forty years, Vanda and Aldo seem like a typical long-married couple, but it doesn't take long to reveal that those old fissures took their toll, and that whatever was put back together is far from a fully satisfying state of affairs.

This section is related by Aldo and, as the couple prepares to go away for a bit, he describes some minor but aggravating incidents in which he was taken advantage of, small signs all adding to his sense that:

I was in danger of losing control of the entire delicate system of weights and counterweights that had kept my life in check for five decades.

More upsetting then is what the couple finds -- and what they don't -- upon their return from their seaside getaway. Their home has been ransacked. Everything is a mess. In the mess, the intruders apparently didn't even manage to find what few valuables there were; very little is missing -- though, to Vanda's great consternation, the cat is.

Over the course of his account, Aldo reveals more about both present and past. Among the few things missing from the home invasion are some photographs he had kept carefully hidden, polaroids of Lidia that he had held onto all these years. He describes their relationship, and his failing his family, from his point of view, and it makes him look no better than Vanda's letters did. But gaps are filled in, including him returning to the fold, as well as the state of the marriage these past four decades.

It's no surprise the kids haven't done particularly well in adulthood: "They turn to us for money, their lives are a mess". Sandro has four children, with three different women; Anna has: "refused to bring children into the world". The two don't get along, either, a dispute over the inheritance from their aunt, who favored one of them, driving a deep wedge between them. As for Aldo and Vanda, though they've stayed together, Aldo admits: "I've been stubbornly unfaithful up until a few years ago".

Aldo also reasons:

From the crisis of many years ago we have both learned that we need to hide a great deal from each other, and tell each other even less. It's worked.

Or so he thinks, anyway. From the outside, it doesn't look like quite such an impressive achievement.

The short final section of the book, narrated by Anna, brings the two children together while their parents are on vacation. They had promised to feed the cat in their parents' absence -- on alternating days, since they don't want to have much to do with one another --, but Anna reveals that she hasn't bothered, explaining: "I can't handle being in that house on my own". The meet up there, and Anna's account brings in the kids' perspective on their parents' marriage, and their own experiences, then and since, a fitting coda to shatter most of the last illusions about this family.

Ties isn't so much grim as sad, a portrait of a family that is dysfunctional in its own peculiar, depressing way, each of the members flawed. There's blame enough to go around, but Aldo certainly has more than his fair share. Many aspects are left unclear, beginning with Aldo's passion for Lidia (and, even more so, her apparent passion for him), which is only partly explored and explained, shown more in its shadows (Lidia is rarely a physical presence, but her existence casts a shadow over the others -- even after Aldo has tried to let her go) than examined head-on.

It's in its unusual, selective and limited scenes-from-a-life presentation that Ties makes the strongest impression. These are only slivers of their lives, with much elided over, but the three perspectives and the overlap of some details, suggest so much about how these lives have been lived, and how these characters have failed -- themselves and each other.

Ties is not a pleasant story, and its characters not particularly sympathetic, but it is a fine piece of story-telling -- perhaps even too expert in its construction: there is a feel of legerdemain to it --, capturing and conveying a great deal in a relatively small space.