Domenico Starnone's Ties is an expertly crafted short novel that is charmingly intimate, disarmingly chatty and laced with some walloping surprises. Its Italian publication so captivated Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri (whose memoir In Other Words documents her study of Italian) that she translated the novel into English, and superbly so.

The novel is a meditation on love--what is gained, what is lost and who is affected when it all goes wrong. Part one follows a sequence of furious letters written by Vanda Minori, a 30-something wife abandoned, along with her two well-behaved children, by her husband, Aldo, who has fallen in love with 19-year-old Lidia and set off on a new, exciting life.

Part two, told by Aldo 40 years later, opens with Aldo and his wife (they're still together!) returning home one night to discover their apartment vandalized and the cat missing. Among the wreckage Aldo finds a swollen yellow envelope containing his wife's letters from four decades ago--the contents of part one. Something else has gone missing as well--the secret little packet with naked photos of Lidia that Aldo has never been able to throw away. Part three is unexpected, perfect and best left without comment here.

Starnone's natural theatricality and robust characters, combined with a sneaky, clever plot, make for a delightful novel that is cruelly short. Nevertheless, the whole story reeks of love--the frustrated, truncated, too-much and not-quite-enough love that holds families together in life. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

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