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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Book Review: ‘The Vietri Project,’ by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

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By Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

Coming-of-age novels typically center on the quest for self-identity — or, as Sheila Heti put it in the title of her divisive 2013 autofiction, “How Should a Person Be?” — but Gabriele, the 24-year-old narrator of Nicola DeRobertis-Theye’s absorbing debut, looks outward, rather than inward, asking instead, “How should a person be in the world?”

How, that is, to live in a world governed by violence, destruction, madness?

At the outset of the novel, Gabriele works in an esoteric Bay Area bookshop, “which endured somehow through the early years of the Amazon empire despite its retreating margins and slowly capitulating customer base.” Every few weeks, she receives a massive typewritten order from the titular Signor Vietri in Rome, where Gabriele’s mother grew up and Gabriele herself spent summers as a teenager. Though each of Vietri’s orders possesses a theme — “oracles and divinations” or “animism and alchemy” — as a whole the books veer wildly from subject to subject.

Gabriele’s fascination with this stranger builds in inverse proportion to her interest in her own life, which largely consists of a kind, doting boyfriend and a cheap Oakland apartment. When her boyfriend begins talking marriage, she flees, not for lack of love but because “there was a great uncertainty that hovered over me and I knew I could never do that to another person, tie them to me before I knew my fate.”

Trekking around South America, she often thinks of Vietri, “the books he had read, the things he must know.” Eventually, she lands in Rome, where she attempts to find him (she has his address from the bookshop) even before calling her vast extended family.

And so begins an adventure — both literal and intellectual — that takes Gabriele deep into Italy’s less picturesque history, from the brutality of life in an Appenine village in the 1930s to the atrocities committed by Italian troops during the country’s occupation of Ethiopia to the murder of Jews under Mussolini.

That all of this dense, difficult history unfolds naturally in the scope of Gabriele’s present-day story — she does, of course, eventually contact her aunts and cousins, and allow herself to be brought into their fold — speaks yards to DeRobertis-Theye’s deft, masterly storytelling. In Gabriele, she’s constructed a narrator who is if not exactly unreliable, then certainly withholding. Gabriele metes out information with disarming slowness, and in small doses, so that her own family history unfolds in tandem with her search for Vietri, which recalls, in its delicious twists and turns, both Oedipa Maas’s investigation of Trystero in “The Crying of Lot 49” and the intensely satisfying revelations of “The Goldfinch.”

Does she find Vietri? To tell you, or to reveal too much about her journey, would be to ruin the pleasures of a deeply gratifying novel. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. This complex, substantive debut offers a singular and transfixing take on the nature of identity — both national and personal — and the dangers of secrecy, both national and personal. And, of course, what it means to come of age in a broken world, a world that has been broken for generations.

To understand Vietri, Gabriele realizes, “I would need to absorb something more complicated, something enormous, perhaps encompassing a century’s history.” And to understand herself, she eventually realizes, she’ll need to do the same.

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