The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace

Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2013

His mother’s family was Midwestern, straight-laced, and vaguely anti-Semitic, in the manner of well-bred WASPs. His father’s family was Jewish, having fled Russia for Italy, then barely escaping fascist Italy to migrate to New York. Disparate backgrounds can sometimes produce solid marriages, but Alexander Stille’s parents rarely got along with each other. How his parents met, how they managed a stormy but lifelong marriage, and how each of them, so completely different, earned the respect and love of their children is the focus of this marvelous memoir. Along the way, readers learn a great deal about the Chicago-based Bauhaus artists of his mother’s youth, the struggles of Jews in Italy under Mussolini’s racial laws, the quirks of quickie divorces in the Virgin Islands in the Forties, Italian politics in the postwar period, the dawning of second-wave feminism in America, and much, much more. Apart from everything one can learn from the histories of the Stille parents, and apart from the entertaining cast of characters each parent’s family provides, Alexander Stille is one of those writers who could describe the paint drying on the wall and make it utterly fascinating. Consider his description of his father’s closet (”a kind of rest home for retired clothing”) or his father’s piles of newspapers (“taking over the apartment like tropical vegetation reclaiming land that had been painstakingly cleared”). You won’t want this book to end, but when it does, you can probably think of at least a dozen friends who really ought to have a copy. Photographs.

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