The Dry Heart

Natalia Ginzburg (auth.), Frances Fre­naye (trans.)

  • Review
By – January 17, 2020

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg is a dark look at mar­riage and a com­pelling exam­i­na­tion of how far the human psy­che can be pushed before it snaps. We learn on the first page that the nar­ra­tor, whose name we nev­er learn, has shot her hus­band between the eyes and killed him. The text is book­end­ed by the mur­der, with the pages in between left to do the job of unrav­el­ing the full sto­ry and motive for the crime. The plot’s frame­work keeps the read­er hooked and makes for a more cap­ti­vat­ing read than it would if we lacked this infor­ma­tion. It helps, too, in the moments the narrator’s char­ac­ter starts to grate. She may at times seem insipid and shy, but Ginzburg’s char­ac­ters show us that even a sim­ple coun­try girl” can hide vio­lent capabilities.

When we first meet the nar­ra­tor, she’s a vir­gin liv­ing with her par­ents. She takes a suit­or named Alfre­do, who, she learns ear­ly on, is in love with some­one else. The two mar­ry any­how, and all seems to be going sur­pris­ing­ly well until it becomes clear Alfre­do is car­ry­ing on an affair with his heart’s true desire — the beau­ti­ful Gio­van­na. She is bold and love­ly, where­as the nar­ra­tor seems unat­trac­tive in her fear­ful nature. The nar­ra­tor is preg­nant when she learns of Alfredo’s affair, and when her hus­band tells her not to ques­tion him, she obeys. The read­er is by now tempt­ed to tear out their own hair in frus­tra­tion with the wife for lis­ten­ing to her awful hus­band, but Ginzburg’s writ­ing is so deft, her prose so won­der­ful­ly wrought, that we stay with it.

Leave him,” the text tempts us to cry, but this book is an explo­ration of the real­i­ties of a mar­riage, and makes us ques­tion what is nor­mal in a union. For exam­ple, when Alfre­do and the nar­ra­tor decide to get mar­ried, he tells her: It’s very unusu­al for both part­ners to love each oth­er the same way,” and that if she is sim­ply very brave we might make out very well togeth­er.” The nar­ra­tor is dis­gust­ed by the idea of mak­ing love to him but reas­sures her­self that the feel­ing is prob­a­bly normal.

Maybe there is no nor­mal, the read­er decides; maybe for all our notions of roman­tic love, what is com­mon and real is one part­ner get­ting walked all over like a door­mat in order to keep the fam­i­ly togeth­er. This is, of course, not what one hopes.

If Ginzburg’s inten­tion was to ques­tion the dark heart of mar­riage and craft a page-turn­er, she suc­ceed­ed. Even though it is the stuff of the quo­tid­i­an, there are pages of real dra­ma. The cou­ple has a baby, for exam­ple, who dies. Ginzburg deliv­ers the blow in such an under­stat­ed fash­ion that we don’t see it com­ing: Then he told me it might be menin­gi­tis. At ten o’clock in the evening the baby died.” Ginzburg does not allow even a sin­gle line of reac­tion after this shock­ing sen­tence. The nar­ra­tor sim­ply con­tin­ues: Francesca took me into her room and I lay down on her bed and drank a cup of coffee.”

It is sim­i­lar with the mur­der — we hard­ly see it com­ing. The writ­ing is so sub­tle, as are the shifts in time. Ginzburg weaves in twelve pages of flash­backs so effort­less­ly you bare­ly notice them. This is a book to read if you care about rela­tion­ships, or if you want to study a mas­ter writer at work.

Emi­ly Sulz­man is a writer and PhD stu­dent study­ing lit­er­ary non­fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati. 

Discussion Questions