A Girl Returned

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I read the English version for Kindle, entitled A Girl Returned and translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. The main character suddenly finds out her parents aren’t actually her parents, when she is removed from from her normal, upper middle-class life of beach house vacations and Barbie dolls, to a chaotic squalid house filled with dirty kids and parents she used to consider an aunt and uncle. She goes from referring to “the woman who conceived me” as “the mother” until a jarring switch about 3/4 of the way through the sparingly-told story (or perhaps -translated).

I found her fraught relationship with her brother Vincenzo to be very discomfiting, but it’s resolution made me feel a hundred times worse. The theme of motherhood is a compelling one, the arminuta has Adalgisa her adoptive mother, her actual mother, the mom of her friend Patrizia, a mothering landlord, and a nurturing teacher who all guide her to very differing degrees. She herself comes to mother her scrawny sister Adriana as well.
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Thank you to Europa Editions and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Told from the point of view of the 13-year old main character, this book describes a drastic change in circumstances - she is shunted out of one life and into another. Given no explanation, she gradually picks up pieces of knowledge, but truly belongs neither in the one nor the other life. The writing is beautiful and conveys worlds of emotion - but the ending was too ambiguous for me, leaving way too many questions unanswered.
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The year was 1975.  As small town in Italy.
Yet.....this story is being told 20 years later....looking back on a childhood.  It’s a thin quiet introspective novel. Very heartfelt story.  

She was thirteen.  We never learn her name. 
She didn’t know her other mother, the mother who conceived her.  
A distant uncle dropped the girl off with her biological mother and their family.  The uncle explained that they - he and his wife, Adalgisa-  ( the only mother she knew for thirteen years - minus the first two years of her life), can’t keep her anymore, and she would be fun living in a house with lots of kids. 

She had been an only child with the uncle and his wife.  As the only parents she knew...the girl was happy with them. Comforts of home, security, food, clothes, supported activities, friends, community, school, feelings of safety, and abundance of needs were met. Love flourished between the girl and the only mother she knew.

So why was the girl returned to her birth mother?  Why did the birth mother give her away in the first place? The reader is not told many details about either of the two mothers. Instead we get suggestive details - and eventually more specific facts, but not everything, leaving the reader to contemplate the roles - behaviors and actions from all the adults....
but this story really belongs to ‘the girl’.....
The story she most wanted to tell was her experience about being ‘returned’....about the new family she lived with....(a shocking contrast from her old life), about her siblings...about the poverty...about the scarcity for food, money, hygiene supplies, solitary privacy, about the family relations and housing dynamics.....
her loneliness, sadness, suppression, school, her teacher, about her one close friend, Patrizia, from her old life, with special emphasis about her younger sister, Adriana....( whom she became very close), and the older 18 year old sibling, named Vincenzo. ( who she tried to distant herself and desires)....whom with later a tragic event takes place.  

The girl and younger sister, Adriana, by 3 years, shared sleeping in the same tight bed. Adriana wet the bed regularly.  The mattress was constantly soaked with urination.  
The girls slept in the same room with the 15 and 18 year old brothers. 
My heart sank imagining the living conditions.  
But the girl takes special care to love and protect Adriana. Adriana idolizes the girl. 
Truth is they begin to idolize each other. ( for different reasons....but it’s the most beautiful relationship).
The girl tells Adriana about her past life - walking along the sea...eating a variety of delicious flavors of ice creams-( all foreign to Adriana) ...and about her old city life which was only about 50 kilometers from their house.  

Throughout this story...the girl keeps trying to figure out why her mother sent her away. Because she was sick?  Was she dead? etc? 
The girl even wrote a letter asking to come back home. She told her mother or Aunt... that everyone in the family saw her as an annoyance, a nuisance. [ not everyone REALLY]....Adriana adored her. 

Sergio, one of the brothers could be cruel....as it was his basic personality...tough guy bully type...who was basically equally mean to everyone.  Vincenzo wasn’t cruel to the girl....but he was ‘potentially’ dangerous sexually.

There are a couple of adventure days...taking the bus back to the girls old house 
....which looked abandoned...

Giuseppe was the baby. One day....the girl and Adriana were to watch the baby while the mother visited someone in the countryside stocking up fruit for jams. 
Well....that scene brought tears to my eyes.  Let’s just say....it was a HARD DAY!!!!
But when later - once Giuseppe was as asleep next to her own body....the girl said...
“I don’t think I’d ever felt the pleasure of such intimacy with any creature”.

Later the girls were scolded when the mother returned because some chores never got done.   I had to set the book down and walk away at that point for a half hour.
Given what those CHILDREN went through that day - only to be scolded later .... we’ll, my emotions ‘ached’.   

I really liked the combination of the smooth and stark writing.   I loved getting to know the characters.  

So much lifelike quality in the everyday details.  I found the writing to be both compassionate and merciless.  I REALLY LIKED THIS SLIM SIZE NOVEL!

Thank You, Europa Editions, Netgalley, and author Donatello Di Pietrantonio
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A Girl Returned is an Italian novel about about mothers and daughters and siblings. A 13-year-old girl is sent away from the family she has always thought of as hers to live with her birth family whom she has never met
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Emotional moving heart wrenching the story of a thirteen year old girl a girl living with a family she thinks is her family is suddenly kicked out of the only home she knew.Sent back to her birth home shocked to discover that this is her family that they are a poor family and her life adjustment begins.So touching so moving at times sad an exquisite novel. #netgalley #europabooks,
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The premise is intriguing: a 13-year-old girl in late 1970s Italy is told that the people who she thought were her parents were not, and that she is to be returned to her real family. The unnamed narrator is heartbroken at the loss of the people and town she loved. Worse yet, the new family is large and extremely poor. Her life of dance lessons, swimming, decent clothing, and weekends by the sea with friends is over. The devastated narrator is not exactly sure about why she is being forced to live with these people or why she ever spent the first 13 years of her life elsewhere in the first place. 
 
The narrator has difficulty loving her biological family, and the feelings are mutual, except for her younger sister Adriana and her baby brother. The narrator's parents regard her more as another mouth who can't even keep up with their hard work than a beloved daughter.  Though she is bright and a good student, that doesn't help much. Other people in their small town keep referring to her as "the returned girl"  and gossiping about her. The sisters become extremely close. The narrator seeks to improve life for Adriana as well as herself. She is angry that secrets are being kept from her, and tries to find out what they are. 

I found the pacing a bit frustrating--too slow in some places, too fast in others. It was difficult to remember which character was which at times. Tantalizing hints are dropped about how things that happen to the narrator, Adriana, and other characters later. However, very little that is definitive is said, and the ending is annoyingly ambiguous. I would not call this novel a must-read, but it is fun, in a sad way.
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Set in Abruzzo, Italy, a thirteen year old girl is suddenly given up by her adoptive parents to her birth family that she has never met. As she is removed from her comfortable life and thrust into a world of poverty, she tries to make sense of what has happened to her and find her way, especially with the help of her younger birth sister, who she grows close to. It’s a moving story that will keep you turning the pages and wish it was even longer. I really loved this book. I read it last summer in Italian, but when I found out it was going to be published in English this summer, I was curious to check out the translation. It didn’t disappoint! If you loved the Neapolitan novels (also translated by Ann Goldstein), you should definitely check out A Girl Returned.
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Overall, I like this. It was well written and the story itself was moving, I just feel like it was relying too much on readers expectations and understanding of other novels that follow similar patterns. This is good though, I would recommend it.
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I had nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath.

After thirteen years, a young girl who has lived with the love and privileges of an adored single child learns that she is being returned to another mother. No more will she live by  the ocean, with beautiful clothes and clean bedding, now her sleep will be warmed by the body of a sister and bed-wetting. Her life is like a dark fairy-tale, a princess forced to live in poverty, as if punished for some unknown deed. What has she done to be punished so? What sense in living in such filth and destitution, with parents who don’t even really seem to want her back? No longer will she spend happy days in the sun with her best friend Patrizia, nor can her friend’s family save her from this senseless exile.

Her little sister Adriana may be uncultured and ignorant but she is fierce and has a hunger for the the world, more she longs for a closeness with her big sister, the  Arminuta (girl returned). Vincenzo, the eldest brother is a mystery, who causes an eruption of confusing emotions within her when he isn’t off with the gypsies or getting beaten by his father. Each day, she longs for her ‘other mother’, she must have had a reason for giving her back, she was ill, could she be now on her deathbed and in desperate need of her care? All she knows is, her ‘real mother’ doesn’t seem to care about her at all, this useless city daughter who can’t even pluck a chicken nor perform domestic tasks. Her real family lives in a foreign world, boisterous, crude, sometimes violent and leaving her deeply lonely despite the presence of many siblings. This feels like a house of shame, parents who have more children than they can afford.

She wants to return to that other life, for now the only way is to relive the memories, telling Adriana about the delicious fresh fish from the market, fish her sibling has never had… no, for them it’s only tuna from a can. Her sister longs for nothing more than to be shown a glimpse of that life, the freedom. Then there is the baby, the youngest of the brood, a child that aches with sickness caused by desperate hunger. A different child, there is so much she doesn’t understand nor perceive about this family, swallowed as she is by her own grief and rejection. Then there is the school, here she is as much an outsider as at home, far more educated than her peers. This is yet another opportunity for her devoted sister to look out for her, whether she likes it or not. Her sister will take hits for her at home too, has protective leanings for her ‘special’ sister, who mustn’t ever be beaten. She can’t do anything right by her mother, doesn’t have the practical sense vital to their existence. Her mother is gruff, meaner than her ‘seaside mamma’ but it’s been a hard life, one that misery has seen fit to hover over. Tragedy isn’t finished with her family. There are also many things she doesn’t know about her biological mother and the story of why she was initially given up.

She must learn to get used to this new life, one that she knows she doesn’t belong in, despite her dream of returning to her true mother. “It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past.” What is mother? Will she ever know again, it’s meaning? Strange to come to love the siblings she learned of so late in her life, regardless of their differences.

It is a story of family and of identity, but one could say class too. Adriana is the heart of it and the beauty of the tale is more in sisterhood, at least that was my takeaway. This is the English debut of the Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio, it is beautifully written and engaging. We feel as equally lost and determined as all the characters. Our narrator’s mother does seem to resent her Arminuta, as if it’s easier to feel disgusted by her ‘city, upper class ways’ than own the reasons why her child doesn’t fit into their hardscrabble surroundings. It is a sad novel, and I look forward to more by the author.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Europa Editions
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In 1975, "I was the Arminuta, the girl returned." A thirteen year old girl once lived near the sea in Southern Italy. "From my house near the beach, you could hear the sound of the waves." Fish dinners eaten in the garden and walks to the ice cream shop were commonplace. She attended swimming lessons and dancing school. Her best friend was Patrizia. One day without warning, her parents said, "I'm sorry, but we can't keep you anymore..." She was whisked away to the country, to the chaotic home of her "birth mother". Her birth mother's greeting upon her arrival, "you're here".

"From the moment I was given back to her, the word 'mamma' had stuck in my throat". "Behind her a fly buzzed around in midair, now and then flinging itself at the wall, in search of a way out." "... I would learn to compete for food and stay focused on my plate to defend it from aerial fork raids".

Despite the deprivations encountered by the teenager, she was able to bond with two of her siblings, oldest brother Vincenzio and younger sister Ariana...but...where did she truly belong? It seemed that neither the mother who birthed her or the mother who raised her until age thirteen would offer her any explanations for their actions. "I was twice an orphan of two living mothers." This is a heavy burden to be placed on teenage shoulders.

"A Girl Returned" by Donatella Di Pietrantonio presents detailed descriptions of our unnamed protagonist and fleshes out many principal and secondary characters. This work of literary fiction left me wanting clarity. Why did these two mother figures behave in this manner? What life path did "the Arminuta" eventually travel? Did her siblings land on their feet? This reader felt that there were too many unanswered questions.

Thank you Europa Editions and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "A Girl Returned".
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A slim volume packed with emotion.  A wealthy, urban, childless couple make an arrangement with a relative in the country, poor and with an overabundance of children, to raise one of their daughters as their own.  For 13 years she has a life filled with love, her parents’ undivided attention, a best friend at school, dancing classes, beautiful things, until the day she finds herself unceremoniously dumped back with her birth parents and five siblings, none of whom she knew existed.  Shock enough, but to make matters worse no-one tells her why.  Is this temporary?  Is her ‘mother’ ill?  Will she come back for her?  Has she done something wrong?  Every child’s nightmare, surely?  Her confusion is so well expressed - she fluctuates between neediness and resentment, gratitude and contempt.  The writing is unpretentious and to the point, nothing really distracts from the emotional turmoil the girl is going through.

The story is narrated from some point in the future and we have her (we never learn her name) memories of her experiences amongst these strangers, only a year or so.  She forms tentative relationships with some of them, particularly her eldest brother and younger sister (these ones are known by their names, the other, boorish, brothers remain simply ‘the brothers’).  Her sister Adriana is a delight, feisty yet caring, and is the person most responsible for seeing her through her transition. 

Slowly, through hints and confessions, she pieces together what happened.  I was impressed by the way this was written, looking back at her own naivety mixed with determination.  

‘A little more than a year had passed, but it was the longest year I had lived, and more than all the others would invade the future.  I was too young, and propelled by the current, to see the river I’d been thrown into.’

A real treat of a book that I’d recommend heartily.
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I'm tempted to guess that A Girl Returned reminded me of Elena Ferrante's books because they share a translator. It's true that it shares, especially early on, the spare language and gritty realness of the Neapolitan novels. But I suspect that any other perceived similarity can be chalked up to my American ignorance of Italian (and, indeed, world) literature, though I wouldn't fault the publisher for riding on the Ferrante wave in selling this book.

I'm not as ignorant where translation is concerned, so I can surmise that Ann Goldstein is at the top of her game. Of the sentences that tripped me up, only one got in the way of meaning; the others simply made me wonder what the original might be, and what alternatives Goldstein weighed. (An example of the latter: "I felt that she was observing with her voracious rapidity the bursting bag, the package I was having trouble carrying.") And I think translations ought to trip up the monolingual reader, as a way of reminding us that we don't know everything. (Again: ignorant Americans.)

The book itself was fantastic: brief, transporting, resonant. It was the kind of story I could have turned around and reread immediately, if I were a re-reader. The relationship between the sisters was particularly affecting. A taste: "She counted my vertebrae, I was so thin, and for each one she made up a story. She called the most prominent by name and had them converse like old ladies, touching one and then another."
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The girl returned is a very appt title for this novel.
The novel opens with a thirteen year old girl carrying her belongings up some steps towards an open door held by her younger sister, although the two sisters have never met.
This is a story of abandonment, of good intentions and, how a child fulfils two women's dreams and needs
At thirteen she is send by her mother to live in a poverty ridden home run by a family with three sons and a nine year old daughter.
With a distance of twenty years, now a grown woman, she shares her recollections of those years with her new family, the discovery of her real mother, the abandonment by the only mother she knew for thirteen years.

The writing is beautiful, characters well developed, the subject of the story, perhaps a cautionary tale....

Thank you NetGalley and Europa for allowing me this arc
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Remember that section in Austen's 'Mansfield Park' where Fanny Price returns to her ramshackle family in Portsmouth who gave her away? This book takes that premise (slightly more complicated here) and explores the tensions via the unnamed narrator caught between the poverty-stricken mother who once passed her on, and the wealthy 'mother' who returned her. 

What Di Pietrantonio captures so well is the intricacy and intimacy of emotions that play out: the unnamed narrator was just 13 when she was unexpectedly thrust out by the family she thought hers. Newly embedded in a poor family and faced with a group of sibling strangers, her navigation via loathing, detachment, anger, self-pity, moments of rage, shame, and unexpected alliances is grippingly rendered. 

This isn't a book written in 'beautiful' sentences, but there is a feeling of emotional authenticity and a lovely clarity in key scenes: the beach, meals in the kitchen, what happens at night.

There's a sort of open-endedness about the narrative which I liked: no moral judgement, no neat 'life-lessons, things remain as messy as human emotions.  And if Fanny Price is one literary reference activated by the text, another is 'My Brilliant Friend' - Italian class structures, the support developed between two young girls, the significance of education.

Written with economy, there is more going on here than the sparse page count would suggest.
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