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'Like Family' Rewards The Patient Reader

There are books you need to slow down for in order to appreciate fully. Like Family, Italian physicist-turned-writer Paolo Giordano's third novel, demands to be savored. Race through this short meditation on family, marriage, and devotion – set in motion by the death of a beloved housekeeper — and you'll miss its point: The importance, in our numbingly busy, propulsive lives, of pausing to fully experience the present.

Giordano's beautiful first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, published in 2008 when he was 26, remains a hard act to follow. It opened with a double bang – childhood traumas that shaped his two protagonists. These loners break our hearts repeatedly as they fall in love but discover they're better suited to solitude. His second novel, The Human Body, was set on a forward operating base in Afghanistan and was concerned with the wars we wage publicly and privately.

With Like Family, Giordano returns to the domestic front. Once again, he explores loneliness so pervasive that it persists even when one loves someone. But while we feel for these characters, we don't ache for them.

The narrator is a socially awkward physicist and academic married to an exuberant, vivacious decorator, Nora, who "flushed" him out of his "hidey-hole." He worries that his neediness "might be sucking the life out of her, like a kind of gigantic parasite."

The couple hire the woman they call Mrs. A. or Babette — after the Isak Dinesen story and the movie based on it — during Nora's difficult first pregnancy, when she is confined to bed. Long widowed after a happy marriage cut short by her husband's kidney failure, Mrs. A. is sensible, robust, and sometimes exasperatingly intransigent. She quickly takes over their household; her employers, more docile charges than bosses, find this comforting. Although she has no experience with children, they keep her on to become their son Emanuele's nanny.

It isn't necessary to have experienced the 'defection' of a cherished, trusted caregiver to relate to Giordano's story, but it helps. Still, I'm with the narrator's therapist, who gets tired of hearing about Mrs. A.

The book opens with Mrs. A's death, then circles back in time through her 16-month medical ordeal and the happier days when the couple considered her part of their little family, even though they realized this wasn't exactly accurate. When she gives notice after eight years, claiming fatigue, the narrator and his wife are hurt and distraught. Their son is baffled: "Of the three of us, Emanuele is the only one who has not yet learned that nothing lasts forever when it comes to human relationships," the narrator comments, before adding significantly, "He is also the only one who doesn't know that this is not necessarily a disadvantage."

Mrs. A. not only spared them the most tedious household chores, she was their cheering section and the glue that held them together, "a steady element, a haven, an ancient tree with a trunk so massive that even three pairs of arms could not encircle it," Giordano writes. "Mrs. A. was the only real witness of the enterprise we embarked on day after day, the sole observer of the bond that held us together ... In the long run, every love needs someone to witness and acknowledge it, to validate it, or it may turn out to be just a mirage. Without her gaze we felt at risk."

It isn't necessary to have experienced the "defection" of a cherished, trusted caregiver to relate to Giordano's story, but it helps. Still, I'm with the narrator's therapist, who gets tired of hearing about Mrs. A. "Now let's forget about the housekeeper. Let's talk about your wife instead," he interrupts impatiently.

The therapist is right, of course. What's really eating his patient is the new unobstructed view of his marriage, now that Mrs. A. is gone – and his newfound understanding of just how short on time we all really are. "Nora and I are always so busy, so distracted, so tired," he says. "If these really are our best years, I'm not satisfied with how we're using them."

Still in his early 30s, Giordano sure seems to be using his time well. With Like Family, he has created another sober book – his third — about the difficulties of bridging our essential solitude. His vision is more melancholy than mirthful and demands a thoughtful, patient read. But Giordano's emphasis on the pressing importance of how we choose to live and love offers subtle hope that our decisions actually matter.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.