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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Her Side of the Story

Alba de Céspedes

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To purchase Her Side of the Story

Title: Her Side of the Story
Author: Alba de Céspedes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1949 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 499 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Her Side of the Story - US
Her Side of the Story - UK
Her Side of the Story - Canada
Elles - France
Aus ihrer Sicht - Deutschland
Dalla parte di lei - Italia
El mejor de los esposos - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Italian title: Dalla parte di lei
  • Translated by Jill Foulston
  • Previously translated by Frances Frenaye in a truncated version, as The Best of Husbands (1952)
  • With an Afterword by Elena Ferrante

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Our Assessment:

B : much here that is very good, but doesn't quite work as intended

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 29/3/2024 John Self
New Statesman . 8/5/2024 E.Peirson-Hagger
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 2/11/1952 Frances Keene
Sunday Times . 3/3/2024 Laura Hackett
Time* . 29/12/1952 .
TLS . 22/3/2024 Caroline Moorehead
The Washington Post . 8/12/2023 Elena Lappin

(* review of previous translation, the truncated version The Best of Husbands)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Next to the tight structure of Forbidden Notebook, this novel feels somewhat prosaic and prolix -- it’s notable that the previous English translation, published in Céspedes’s lifetime, was cut substantially in length -- but its value lies in its representation of a woman’s life in a dark time." - John Self, The Guardian

  • "Her Side of the Story is a remarkable investigation into selfhood, made all the knottier by the fact that as its narrator recounts her life story she remains tortured by the legacy of her mother." - Ellen Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman

  • "This is a simply told, straightforward novel, too well done to be categorized merely as lending library fiction yet lacking that necessary awareness which would make it a candidate for a higher category. (...) The thing that never seems to occur to Alessandra is that the marriage cannot be made in the image she has created: it must be a shared ideal. (...) Alessandra, with flashes of perception to relieve the whole, is an adolescent bore who wants to eat her man and have him too." - Frances Keene, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Alba de Cespedes (...) has a sharp eye for the kind of gritty marital incidents that set a man and wife's teeth on edge. In piling most of the evidence and all of the sympathy on her heroine's side, she writes like a shrewd attorney for the plaintiff, but reads, finally, like a somewhat shallow judge of human relations." - Time

  • "(A) wonderful new translation by Jill Foulston. (...) This is essentially a novel about women, their thoughts, desires, fears and, above all, hopes. Happiness, its importance, the lack of it, its elusiveness, lies at its heart. (...) At 485 pages, with a brief afterword by Ferrante taken from Frantumaglia, Her Side of the Story is too long and too repetitious. Alessandra’s obsessive focus on herself and her feelings can become tedious. But it is nonetheless a fascinating study in what it was like for a clever and rebellious woman to grow up in the profound and persistent anti-feminism of Italy before and for some time after the war." - Caroline Moorehead, Times Literary Supplement

  • "De Céspedes writes crystalline prose when she analyses the innermost thoughts and feelings of her heroine (.....) Her Side of the Story is a courageous novel, beautifully imagined and written. Yet its ending does not have the narrative power of the first half of the book. It is disappointing that Alessandra becomes a victim of her own romanticism, choosing revenge over many revelatory solutions open to her within this narrative and in such a life. The rebellion of this tragic heroine does not lead to freedom." - Elena Lappin, The Washington Post

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:

       Alessandra -- the one telling: Her Side of the Story -- opens her account explaining that: "I met Francesco Minelli for the first time in Rome, on October 20, 1941", but she only gets to that meeting, and to Francesco -- her future husband -- entering her life just past the midway point of this long -- nearly five hundred page -- novel.
       As she then explains:

It may be that it's only from this point on that the story begins to have real importance in terms of the ends for which it has been written. But I couldn't keep silent about everything that led to our meeting: Francesco was in me from the first moment, when my father scorned me at birth because I was a girl.
       So, before really getting to Francesco, she recounts her life up to that point, covering some two decades. She begins by noting that her parents had had a child before her, a boy named Alessandro, but he had died tragically when he was just three, only a few months before she was born. Her parents continued to venerate the young boy-wonder, having had such high hopes for him, and so also: "I was burdened with the name Alessandra in order to perpetuate his memory, and in the hope that some of the virtues that had left an indelible memory of him would show up in me". It's a heavy burden -- but being a girl in the chauvinist Italy of the time was one in any case. So also her mother admits she had wanted her to be a boy as well -- as:
Men don't have all the subtle reasons for unhappiness that we do. Men adapt. They're lucky. And I wanted to leave a lucky person behind.
       And so:
My mother tried everything to get me to give up music, novels, poetry. She wanted me to enjoy myself, to be stronger than she was. When I was still young, she used to tell me gloomy and painful love stories, hoping to arouse an instinct for self-preservation.
       Her mother was a pianist who had married a man from Abruzzo -- his family were: "country folk" -- and who gave up her dreams of being a concert pianist and gave piano lessons instead. Meanwhile, from the first, Alessandra describes her father harshly -- "no different from the standard issue petty bourgeois husband, the mediocre father, mediocre employees".
       Alessandra doesn't have a very happy childhood. She's not outgoing and has few friends -- though she does get close to one girl in the building, Fulvia --, her success at school ("attributable only to my inability to do anything carelessly or halfheartedly") further isolating her. Grimly, she admits:
The thought of suicide, however, which I clung to as a last resort, was a great help during difficult times.
       Her mother is hired by a family that lives in a luxurious villa, charged with trying to give the daughter of the house, Arletta, an appreciation of music, as her tastes in the arts aren't at all what the refined family expects. Arletta has an older brother, a highly sensitive soul Hervey, and Alessandra's mother falls in love with him -- but there can be no happy ending here.
       Alessandra certainly learnt from her mother, and in many ways takes after her -- though she is more determined to avoid some of the compromises that her mother made. Sent then to live with her father's relatives in the countryside she nevertheless finds an inner hold:
I was sure that she trusted her memory would live on in me and my life as a woman. In fact, the reason for her death and its manner left me with a serious responsibility. I couldn't disappoint myself without disappointing her.
       Years earlier, her father had spoken to Alessandra about her and her mother:
I don't know, but you are different from other women, I can tell you that. Maybe it's because of the books. But there's something not quite right about you two.
       In the countryside, her grandmother, Nonna -- the head of the household, whom all defer to -- tells Allessandra: "You must stop reading books" -- but it's also because she recognizes Alessandra's inner strengths and sees her as the one who will take her place. So she explains: "You don't need to read books: you'll be in charge". (She also admits: "I used to read, too, before I got married" .....)
       But Alessandra doesn't give in to country life. The teen keeps on studying on her own, one of her uncles helping her get the books she needs. She's somewhat tempted by the boy that's already been chosen for her, but she fights against this future that is being laid out for her, not wanting to succumb to what an aunt admits to: "There's something so numbing in the everyday rhythm of life, and slowly, before we know it, we're caught. And there's no time, there's never time for anything". Alessandra resists as best she can: "I wanted to rebel against that sordid destiny".
       War looms, a cloud slowly approaching and darkening. With it comes opportunity: the longtime housekeeper wants to leave her father's household, and so Alessandra is summoned back to Rome, to be the woman of the house (which is a small apartment) and take care of the place and her father. With him going blind, forcing him also to leave his job, she is a necessary support.
       Despite her domestic obligations, and the need for her to get a job to supplement their income, being in Rome also allows her to go to university and continue her studies. And, eventually, she also finally meets Francesco, a tenured professor of philosophy of law more than a decade older than her. As he then also admits, he is an anti-fascist -- a revelation that comes as quite a shock to her:
     With that word, I remember feeling a violent blow to the chest. It was a word that terrified me, although I didn't know what it meant. I really could not have specified what it was to be an anti-fascist. I had never seen an anti-fascist.
       For a long time, the war is far off. Men -- many just boys -- leave to fight in it, but both in Abruzzo and then Rome its reality only slowly sinks in. As a professor, Francesco is not called up -- but he is an active anti-fascist, and that brings with it increasing dangers.
       Alessandra and Francesco marry, struggling financially -- his university post apparently doesn't pay a lot, and eventually he is removed from his position for his political leanings. He continues to be involved in political activity, and ultimately is even jailed. Alessandra dips her toes in some of his dangerous activities, wanting to be helpful and not able to show her devotion to him in any other way, but what she really lives for and wants is him. When he is finally to be released from prison, the anticipation nearly overwhelms her as she waits for his arrival, in one of the novel's more powerful scenes, where: "My entire life was gathered around Francesco's ascending steps".
       Early in her relationship with Francesco, her father speaks to her:
I saw his hand once more reaching for my mother's, and I thought of Francesco waiting outside the door. "Are you happy ?"
     "Yes," I said, but it wasn't true. I was just in a hurry.
       Settling into her marriage, she finds:
The days stacked up; months quickly swallowed months; the seasons turned. I always said: "Now I'm working; later I'll be happy; now I'm washing up and later I'll be happy; now I'm standing in line but I'll be happy later."
       So also she imagines that when Francesco returns from prison she will find that happiness with him that she longed for. But he is still politically active and involved and doesn't have the same priorities as her. And she takes that very, very hard .....
       Alessandra says that the first half of her account, the first half of the novel, is a kind of preamble, the foundations to explain what came later, and that's true: in describing her formative years we come to get a full picture of the character, helping to understand what she is going through once she is together with Francesco. (That said, the ending still comes as a shock .....) But the novel really almost does feel like two separate stories -- and it's the first half that is the much more compelling one.
       The separation between the two parts is a stark one; even dad is conveniently shoved off to the relatives in Abruzzo once Alessandra anbd Francesco are really together, and practically nothing is heard about him (or the other relatives there) until the very end (and, while it's a powerful ... reünion, it's also a reminder of how out of her life these people have been for the past few years).
       The conclusion also veers to the melodramatic -- though, certainly in its final manifestations, seems believable enough. But it's also something of an awkward fit with the build-up -- of Alessandra and her character -- of the first half, which contrasts with how she manages (and doesn't) in the second.
       Late on, Alessandra realizes she and Fulvia have drifted apart:
We had nothing left in common besides memories of our childhood. I was always saying that I wanted to live in that neighborhood with those people, but maybe it wasn't true. Truthfully, all I meant was that I wanted to go back to being what I was before my mother died, before the war and I met Francesco and Tomaso.
       Readers may feel similarly .....
       The first half of Her Side of the Story is very strong, and while the second is not nearly as consistently compelling, there are many good bits here as well; it's still an odd fit, however, as even as the first part is meant to be mere foundation, it's far more interesting both as story and character-portrait(s).
       De Céspedes does sometimes opt for the too obvious -- "My father's blindness seemed revealing of the blindness in which he had lived his whole life". Other things could be explored more fully, as when Fulvia playfully tells Alessandra: "it's too bad we're both women. We could have gotten married" -- and Alessandra's imagination immediately runs away with her: "I wanted her to remove her slip and show me her breasts. We're both women, I'd say, there's nothing wrong with it, is there ?" Remarkable, too, is how the war and even the politics Francesco -- and then, through him, Alessandra -- are involved with are kept at bay: there's little sense of what Francesco and his colleagues are fighting for, for example, and even if it was completely clear to de Céspedes' audience in 1949, when the book first appeared, there is an odd hush around it here.
       The long story is all meant to build to the conclusion -- and while de Céspedes does certainly offer quite a dramatic one, and is able to pull things together neatly in the very final pages, the pivotal act doesn't quite convince as being in character, the final turn too sudden.
       Much of Her Side of the Story is very good -- but it's a misshapen novel, de Céspedes forcing it to become something that it never quite seems to want to be.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 October 2023

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Her Side of the Story: Reviews (* review of previous translation, the truncated version, The Best of Husbands): 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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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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