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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Forbidden Notebook

Alba de Céspedes

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To purchase Forbidden Notebook

Title: Forbidden Notebook
Author: Alba de Céspedes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1952 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 259 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Forbidden Notebook - US
Forbidden Notebook - UK
Forbidden Notebook - Canada
Le cahier interdit - France
Das verbotene Notizbuch - Deutschland
Quaderno proibito - Italia
El cuaderno prohibido - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Italian title: Quaderno proibito
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein
  • Previously translated as The Secret, by Isabel Quigly (1957)
  • With a Foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Italica* . (36:4) 12/1959 Aida Mastrangelo
Literary Review . 4/2023 Magnus Rena
Le Monde . 3/3/1955 Marcel Brion
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 28/9/1958 Frances Keene
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/1/2022 Joumana Khatib
Time* . 13/10/1958 .
TLS A+ 10/3/2023 Clare Pettitt
Wall St. Journal . 27/1/2023 Toby Lichtig

* review of an earlier translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "With exquisite sensibility, shrewd analysis and compassionate under standing Alba de Céspedes probes into the hearts and minds of her characters. Her simple, quasi conversational prose is real, sincere, and direct as the character of her heroine. Although the author writes in the first person, and the diary is full of confessions and secrets as all diaries are, this does not prevent her from creating distinct characters who live in their own world of ideas and actions. In this detailed story of everyday events, sometimes dull and sometimes full of color and excitement, she reveals to us not only a segment of contemporary Italian life, but of life everywhere in the world where the same changes in modes of thinking and in standards have taken and are taking place. It possesses a universality of which we are gradually made to feel we are a part." - Aida Mastrangelo, Italica

  • "(A) mature woman's exploration of the meaning of her marriage, her relationship with her children, her search for self, her new and brutally honest appraisal of the importance of solitude and time, above all time, in family life. (...) This is by far the most profound yet simplest of her books, written with the powerful insight that only a sensitive, highly intelligent woman could bring to the basic problem of Western woman: how to use the freedoms she has won, how to play the manifold roles of wife, mother and professional woman, yet still retain the essential touchstone, the self." - Frances Keene, The New York Times Book Review

  • "What might have been a family story, with all its betrayals and unhappy detours forgotten, becomes an excruciating study of the diarist herself. The written record of Valeria’s feelings and observations makes it impossible for her to ignore her discontent: the chill she feels in her marriage, her warring impulses toward her children, the guilt and pleasure she finds in her work. Yet no transgression or admission feels as central as the fact of the diary -- “an evil spirit,” she thinks." - Joumana Khatib, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Author de Cespedes attacks neither motherhood nor the status of the housewife; she only asks that Mamma or Mom stand on her dignity and true worth, and above all, that she reject the martyr pose. The Secret expresses poignantly the mood of wanting "to start living afresh" and the discovery that it is too late." - Time

  • "This devastating and brilliant novel, written by a remarkable woman, deserves to become a bestseller all over again, as it was when it first appeared in Italy in 1952 as Quaderno proibito. And in this crisp new translation by the talented Ann Goldstein, with a foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri, it has every chance of meeting the triumphant reception it deserves." - Clare Pettitt, Times Literry Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Forbidden Notebook is presented in diary form, the entries of Valeria Cossati in the notebook of the title from between November, 1950 and May, 1951. (The novel was serialized, first published in installments in a magazine, appearing practically in real time.) Age forty-three, Valeria is married to Michele, and they have two basically just-grown children, Riccardo and Mirella, who still live at home. Though Valeria and Michele were born in well-off families, they haven't been able to maintain the previous generations' living standards (defensively Valeria insists: "we did come from wealthy families, but that everything had been lost to bad management"); they are securely middle-class -- Michele has a good bank job, and Valeria works as well -- but money is still tight and a constant concern.
       Purchasing the notebook is a spur of the moment act for Valeria -- and an act of rebellion of sorts. She goes to great pains to keep her new activity of diary-keeping from her family, constantly worried that one of them will find it and trying to find a secure hiding place for it: Valeria does not just not have a room of her own, she doesn't even have a drawer of her own in which she could lock it away.
       For Valeria it is a huge step: she goes so far as to say: "that for the first time in twenty-three years of marriage I'm doing something for myself". Her dedication to family, her almost literal self-lessness is one reason why, when she even just mentions the idea of keeping a diary, her entire family laughs at the absurdity of the thought. It's also something that has limited her and held her back; as her daughter diagnoses: "You recognize only the authority of the family", for better and worse. (Her adherence to societal norms and expectations is also nicely revealed in her admission that: "When Michele and I were engaged, I sinned with him, but I pretended to do it reluctantly, swept away by him, without consenting".)
       Valeria also struggles to find the time to write in her new notebook. Between her job and the housework -- all of which falls upon her -- she's hard-pressed to squeeze in time for herself -- but she starts to try to make some. And in putting down her thoughts she begins to wonder about her life, and her relationships with her family. She comes to recognize that, for example: "although we love each other so much, we protect ourselves from each other like enemies".
       Valeria finds: "It is increasingly difficult for me to understand my children". She notes how things have changed, suggesting:

Maybe it's because studies were very different then for girls. I would never have thought of being a lawyer. I studied literature, music, art history. I was taught only what is beautiful and sweet in life. Mirella studies forensic medicine. She knows everything.
       Daughter Mirella has taken to staying out until all hours, and is seeing an older man, a lawyer in his thirties in whose firm she eventually takes her first job. Her mother -- and, especially, her older brother -- worry about her reputation, but Mirella is determined to live a more comfortable life, explaining:
Listen, mamma, I don't want to have the life you and papa have had. Papa is an extraordinary man, uncommon, I know, I adore him, but rather than have the life he's given you, I'd kill myself. I have a single card to play: marriage. And soon, because I can't expect too much, I'll have only youth. I don't have a name, and so forth, a father with a political position, a worldly position, I don't even have clothes.
       (Valeria does note that: "at Mirella's age I was already married and expecting Riccardo".)
       Son Riccardo meanwhile takes a simple girl who hasn't even finished high school for a girlfriend, and comes up with a harebrained scheme to go work in Argentina while keeping this Marina tied to him back here in Italy, preferably in his parents' household while he is abroad. And while Michele does get a raise at work, he also dreams of escape -- pinning his hopes on a screenplay he wrote -- and doesn't take the drama his wife sees in the kids' lives nearly as seriously.
       Several times, Valeria also turns to previous writings -- the letters she exchanged with Michele during their engagement or when he was fighting in Africa during the second World War, or even papers and poems she wrote as a schoolgirl --, turning to the past: "maybe because I don't have the courage to confront the present". She is surprised by this version of herself she finds there: the letters: "don't seem to be written by the girl I've always thought I was". And:
I realize that Michele doesn't know me at all if he thinks my attitude at that time was free and rebellious. I'm much freer today, much more rebellious. He continues to address me through an image that no longer reflects who I am.
       Given how secretive she is about this act that she sees as particularly rebellious -- writing in this notebook --, it's of course perhaps not so surprising that Michele hasn't caught on ..... And, indeed, while Valeria revels in the freedom of this space where she can express herself, she also can not help but perceive it as a danger, a ticking bomb, almost. So also she worries about its discovery, and the consequences, if something should happen to her out of the blue. Ultimately, keeping this honest record, confronting the truths of her life, proves too much; she comes to understand: "all women hide a black notebook, a forbidden diary" -- and she can no longer bear it in tangible form, making for the strong ending to her story.
       Forbidden Notebook does, for a while, veer towards the melodramatic. Valeria gets closer to her boss, the wealthy director of the firm, Guido, who has devoted his life to his business; she is tempted -- strongly -- to upend her life. And Riccardo's situation becomes more pressing when he knocks up Marina, with Valeria then again expected to take on more responsibilities -- for family, after all. Meanwhile, poor Michele's dream of a new life in the movie business predictably proves more fantasy than anything else.
       The different paths -- the impressively strongly independent Mirella and the relationship she is involved in (with a married man, no less) and where it might lead; Riccardo's much more limited range; Valeria's vacillation between continuing in the role she has filled for the past two decades or flying free -- are a bit extreme in their presentation here, but overall it works quite well, the fundamental issues presented strongly enough in Valeria's voice to overcome the too-simple parts of the story.
       The pressures of this society and culture -- evident in everything from Valeria's mother's attitude to the concerns about what the porter might think -- are nicely made clear. How much Valeria (unlike her daughter) is stuck in them and can do little better than write about her situation is particularly nicely realized in Forbidden Notebook. The novel and what Valeria struggles with remain far too relevant in far too much of the world even seventy years after its first publication.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 January 2023

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Forbidden Notebook: Reviews (* review of an earlier translation): Alba de Céspedes: Other books by Alba de Céspedes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Alba de Céspedes lived 1911 to 1997.

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© 2023 the complete review

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