One of the first things a school-aged child is taught to do is tie their shoelaces. It’s a frustrating process, really, for both adult and child. The tutelage is never transmitted easily. Children’s noses wrinkle in concentration, frustrated by the way their unconditioned fingers fumble to make the bunny ears, or perfect the “loop, swoop, and pull” methodology. If they are lucky enough to get it right on the first try, the work is not yet over, for the nature of shoelaces is that they come untied, and instruction must inevitably be repeated. But the dedication to tying and re-tying these strings is what ensures a trip-free day. When the child can tie independently, they are ready to go to school and presumably run, slide, or swing without fear. In other words, the ties, and commitment to them, are what gives a child freedom.
Domenico Starnone’s Ties presents the story of a family with respective “strings” that come loose when one member chooses to leave. The novel, published in 2014, is the most recent in a well-respected lineage written by the esteemed Italian journalist, screenwriter, and novelist. Set in Naples, where Starnone was born, Ties presents the universal plotline of a man leaving his family for a younger woman colleague. However in this case the narratives are written with a psychological complexity that illuminates insights of the human condition from which all readers can learn.
The novel is written from multiple perspectives. While employment of this device is quite effective, Starnone’s choice is made even more interesting by the literary puzzle piece this particular novel represents. Because of the similar plotline and Starnone’s juggling of male and female points of view, many speculate that Ties is the sequel to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. This theory would affirm a suspicion that Ferrante is, in fact, the well-known literary translator Anita Raja, who is also Starnone’s wife. However in some corners the speculation goes so far as to suggest that Ferrante is in fact Starnone himself. The mystique of the novel aids in its reception (or deception), which now has the literary world abuzz.
Told in three parts, with three distinct points of view, and covering events over the course of decades, the novel’s form illuminates the shattering and re-piecing together of “happily ever after”. In a narrative arc that mimics the tragic lag between a person’s ability to understand what on earth he’s done and face the consequences that follow, Ties investigates the psychic unravelling and mental justifications that occur when the binds of commitment are breached. As in most stories of marriage, the ones most affected are the children, who surprise readers with their actions in an unexpected ending that makes surrendering into the murk of the novel’s emotional indulgence ultimately worthwhile.
Starnone begins with Vanda’s voice, with a personal letter to her husband that is poignant, sharp, and insightful (furthering speculation that Ferrante/Raja may have had a hand in writing it). Vanda’s reflections articulate – in the way the jilted do in personal letters or impassioned bathroom-mirror soliloquies – the depth of feeling and accusation that a person must process when the structure of her life is suddenly, without her approval, altered. Her husband, Aldo, has left with Lidia, a modern woman who has career ambitions and represents the key to unlocking the bonds of domesticity.
Vanda suffers acutely, revealing her inner-examinations to her husband, beginning from the time she noticed Aldo’s wandering eye to the moment she questioned her worth as an “efficient” and desirable wife. Her acceptance comes begrudgingly; it is a tool for survival, not liberation. It ingrains her into her role of the bitter ex-wife, while Aldo’s self-identity evolves. “I’m a mess,” she tells him, “you owe me an explanation, and it had better be a decent one.”
In the novel’s introduction, translator Jhumpa Lahiri presents a dichotomy of freedom and containment. While this can be easily interpreted as Aldo’s decision to either stay inside domestic binds or flee from them, Vanda’s chapter presents the notion of “container” in a different sense. In this first section, Vanda must suddenly find the intrapersonal space to hold the intense concentration of emotion resulting from the decision her husband made both without regard for her and in direct relationship to her. She must grow in her capacity, or shrivel. But the choice is never something she asked for her; it is something that happens to her.
The arrangements for the children, the gas, the electrical bill, her feelings of dejection and low-self-worth – are all suddenly hers to bear. Of course, one could claim that all adults must enter into any contract with the preparedness to embrace consequences should that contract go awry. Things happen. Relationships crumble. It is our own duty to maintain a sense of self throughout it all, is it not?
But what Ties demonstrates is that, in the functioning modern patriarchies in which most of us live, the burden of this emotional labour is disproportionately placed on the woman of a conventional household when a man abandons his contract in pursuit of self actualisation elsewhere. (The question of whether self-actualisation can even be achieved “elsewhere” is addressed later on.)
Without conversation or consideration, Aldo’s decision to leave assumes by default that Vanda will carry the responsibility of caring for their children. One can speculate why his assumption is left unquestioned, but why bother when history demonstrates that usually the sacred duty of child-rearing is assumed to be that of the wife? An ironic paradigm, considering that women are the “fleshiest” of the genders and often blamed for original sin as well. How the female proximity to and constraint by the body as bearers of children renders the woman both more pious and at the same time most qualified for the physical entrapments of domestic life is a rationalisation that seems more convenient than anything else. Perhaps, the men say silently to themselves as they leave their matronly partners, homemaking is not the most highly revered vocation after all.
Lidia seems, from what readers can gather in the one-dimensional presentation of her character, either endlessly patient with Aldo or blinded by independence. She seems to make no demands of him, nor does she tire of him living in her home. Together, the pair manages a lucrative artistic and intellectual life with each seeming to serve as the other’s muse. This works well for Aldo, for whom the pursuit of instinct, novelty and experience score higher on the ladder to enlightenment than familial duties. In his own words, betrayal comes not when you abandon your commitments but rather when “you betrayed your own instinct, your needs, your body, yourself”.
Assuming this notion to be true, what Aldo fails to see is that his philosophy leaves Vanda to find her own self-actualisation either within her domestic binds or not at all. This being the dichotomy, one must ask ‑ is this logic flawed, or simply unexamined by the collective male psyche? As Starnone demonstrates with an emotionally vulnerable letter from Vanda, and lengthier yet unsatisfactory reflections from Aldo, it is most likely the latter. When Aldo has his turn to speak, readers learn that he was in love with Lidia. It was love that motivated his departure, not lust, as Vanda accused. He could not confess this to Vanda, he reveals. Telling her the truth – the truth she begged for – was an act of accountability he did not have the strength for. Doing so would make him “all the more responsible for her deterioration”, he decides.
While Aldo is insightful enough to recognise his cowardice in hindsight, by the time he does so his actions have already taken root, manifesting in ways that damage the entire family. Vanda becomes cold, scathing, resentful. She manipulates the children to see her side, to pledge loyalty to her in confusing ways. This is not to say that Aldo does not try to reconcile his actions. He chooses a course of remedy involving irregular visits to home and subjects his children to half-hearted attempts at fathering (resulting in cancelled plans and their early return). Readers can also enjoy the somewhat comical presence of Labes the cat, on whom Aldo and Vanda project their resentful energy and mutual disdain. The cat becomes an annoying motif in the second half of the novel, making appearances when Aldo’s loathing of his circumstances is palpable.
The final section, which cannot be revealed fully as it would certainly spoil the plot, is unexpected, though quite satisfactory. It is written from the perspective of the children, who grapple with relationships in the context of a new generation. Without having a healthy model of marriage to base their actions upon, they find themselves browsing old photographs and making sense of what was never said. (Here readers remember that Aldo too had dysfunctional parents as a child.) The children experiment with blaming – first themselves, then one another, then their parents. But blame will not liberate them from this situation. Blame does not help one heal old confusions, unlearn destructive patterns or move forward with clarity and wellbeing. Blame is something to be felt, projected, then released in exchange for knowing better next time.
This brings us to the fundamental question of the novel: What alternatives have we to the dysfunctional dichotomy of marriage and adultery? And is this really the reality? The age-old notion of domestication behind door number one or freedom behind door number two? Or, might freedom be obtained with a path more nuanced, and perhaps a bit more intentional?
If the only choices are to either stay or go, then 50 per cent of the time one-half of the people involved will be in temporary bliss, while the other half is left dissatisfied. As Aldo’s narrative demonstrates, to flee a situation leaves messes – some literal, some emotional – all requiring clean-up. These messes impede the self-actualisation that motivated the departure in the first place. It is, therefore, impossible to achieve freedom through abandonment. Abandonment can only be a step along the way. As anyone who has ever believed that their divorce would bring them perpetual bliss can attest, leaving still involves significant challenges.
This is not to say that divorce can’t be a path to happiness. Both divorce and marriage are often necessary, and even quite blissful contracts into which we all might enter. However, as with any contract, one must never enter blindly. If we believe the answers lie just at the other side of our circumstances, life is spent running and never embracing. As Aldo learns when he comes home, the walls Vanda constructed between them were re-cemented every year he kept her at arm’s length. Distrust, fear, self-righteousness, and the stubborn will to be right are all blockades that grow more resolute with silence.
An alternative definition of liberation might be to find contentedness within one’s circumstances, navigating a fluctuating balance of independence and freedom, choice and duty. In the context of a relationship, this means vulnerable honesty over role-playing, communication over assumptions, and patience over rigid expectations. In the context of divorce, it means considering all consequences before assuming another lover holds the key to what is missing. And in both contexts it means understanding women and non-binary people to be as deserving of self-actualisation as Aldo feels he is.
Now of course, living this way can be messy in a different sense, requiring a vulnerability and capacity for tedious self-reflection that many simply don’t desire. Or perhaps don’t have the time for. But what if it was more fruitful? Or maybe, it is just more tedious, and ultimately disappointing in other ways. It is up to us to decide, supposing this is what it means to be human.
We humans tie our shoes an average four times a day. This equates to a month of an average person’s life spent tying knots. When one looks at it this way, tying laces is a drag. It is oppressive, this notion of shoes. It weighs us down. But when one looks at the places that shoes take their wearers – the mountain shoes help people climb – then shoes are, also, a tool of enlightenment. When viewed this way, the novel’s original title, the Italian Lacci, which translates as “Laces” – could present a double meaning. Can we ever really free ourselves from our bonds? Or should we lace up even more tightly and embrace them as an aid to our own enlightenment?
How do we end harmful dichotomies and move forward with models of commitment that make people feel liberated, not repressed?
Bojar, Karen. “Ties ‑ a powerful novel by Domenico Starnone (AKA Elena Ferrante) now in English translation” Europa Editions UK, March 8th, 2017. www.europaeditions.co.uk/review/2893.
Donadio, Rachel. “Domenico Starnone’s New Novel Is Also a Piece in the Elena Ferrante Puzzle.” The New York Times, March 9th, 2017. www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/books/review/ties-domenico-starnone-jhumpa-lahiri.html.
Megan DeMatteo is an American poet and fiction writer.