Grandmother Writes to Her Granddaughter Heart-to-Heart


By Susanna Tamaro

Translated by John Cullen

Nan A Talese Doubleday

204pp., $18.50

The premise is almost as cliched as the title: As winter encroaches, an elderly woman sits down to write her life's story for her estranged granddaughter, who is studying in America. ''And so here I am in the kitchen staring at one of your old exercise books and chewing my pen like a child having trouble with her homework.''

But Susanna Tamaro's storytelling ability and lyric style transcend both the cliches and the dime-store philosophy that are, unfortunately, liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative. She has a genius for detail and conveys with sincerity the love between grandmother and granddaughter that imbues the book. The end result is a simple, charming novel that resonates with quiet humor.

''Is there anything more terrible than an incomplete return?... That wouldn't have been a boomerang, but an abyss; I don't think anyone could survive such a thing. Imagine: whatever you wanted to say to someone you loved has to stay inside you forever ... you can't look into her eyes anymore, can't embrace her, can't ever say the things to her that you hadn't yet said.'' Wishing to spare her granddaughter the pain of an incomplete return, Olga, the narrator, offers her life story as a gift, one that will remain with her granddaughter after she is gone.

Written with great personal honesty, it is a combination journal-love letter. She tells her story with a calm, occasionally wry self-awareness, only rarely descending into self-justification or recrimination.

Olga's early life was smothered by convention; peer pressure was her only religion. Her father was a free thinker, and her mother a converted Jew who attended Roman Catholic mass as a formality. ''No religion. That phrase weighed like a boulder on the most delicate phase of my childhood, when I was asking the biggest questions. Those words were like a mark of infamy; we had abandoned one religion to embrace another that we didn't have the slightest respect for.''

Olga's emotionally stifling marriage and her failed relationship with her daughter, which culminates in the latter's tragic death, lead Olga on a spiritual search for inner freedom. Through the love she and her granddaughter share, Olga gains a measure of peace about her daughter.

After her parents' home is bombed during World War II, all that is left is a cake pan that belonged to Olga's grandmother, the one in which Olga taught her own granddaughter to bake a cake.

The pan and Olga's memories are her legacy. It is the truths learned late in her life that she is writing for her granddaughter, hoping to pass on the ''glimmer of light'' she only now perceives.

''Will my words take you to a safe place? I'm not presumptuous enough to believe that; perhaps they'll only get on your nerves, they'll confirm the low opinion you had of me before you left. Maybe you'll only be able to understand me when you're older; you'll be able to understand me after you've traveled that mysterious road that leads from intransigence to compassion.'' This gentle-spirited, bittersweet tale was a runaway bestseller in Europe, and the recipient of the Premio Donna Citta di Roma.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.