The initial premise is deceivingly simple: Daniele Mallarico is an elderly widower and a noted book illustrator in decline who lives in Milan, Italy. His daughter, Betta, asks him to babysit his four-year-old grandson, Mario, for four days. She and her husband, Saverio, live in Naples, in the same house where Daniele was raised decades before, and both are university professors who need to travel to an academic conference.

Daniele is reluctant to accept his daughter's appeal, as he's recovering from a "small surgical procedure." He is also facing a pressing deadline from his publisher to illustrate a Henry James story about a man who returns to his former house and is confronted by a ghost. When Daniele concedes and arrives in Naples, he learns that Betta and Saverio's marriage is in trouble and his exceptionally precocious grandson is a devious menace. The boy lights the burners on the stove and even handles knives. What ensues are four days contending with a needy, demanding grandson whose chilling, escalating antics ultimately force Daniele to face the ghosts and phantoms plaguing his life.

Snappy dialogue and sharp, briskly drawn scenes are perfectly balanced with intimate ruminative passages. All is further enhanced by Jhumpa Lahiri's insightful translation and introduction. As in his previous novel, Ties, Domenico Starnone has written an emotionally complex, layered story whose brevity serves to amplify profound themes of self-identity, marriage, aging, death and the daunting sacrifices of the creative life. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

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