A third of the way through Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Women I Love, the narrator, a semi-employed editor and writer named Marcello, does something to his girlfriend that men have been doing to women for centuries: He constrains her freedom. Then, understanding the weight of what he’s just done, he attempts to write the scene from her perspective: “I’ll just avoid…the neurotic, obsessive, childish point of view of the typical male narrator—and I’ll tell the story instead through Barbara’s eyes.”
Marcello has just announced to Barbara that he’s struck a deal with his rich father to purchase her beloved and hard-won apartment, which he’s moved into, as an investment. When she tells him her name has to be on the deed, he brushes her off. She’s predictably livid: at the threat to her own independence, at the audacity of her wealthier boyfriend to use his father’s money to snatch up the only thing that’s ever truly been hers. “The courtyard, the flowers, it was all being commandeered,” she thinks—at least according to Marcello. Her gaze falls on him: “His nearly hairless body but his face covered in beard, overweight, someone who’d never had a real job, never worked in a restaurant, who’d never actually been scared.” Suddenly, without warning, Marcello snaps back into his own perspective, imagining an alternate reason for his girlfriend’s anger: She doesn’t want to fully commit to him because she’s still entertaining a flirtation with a rival.
Are we able to write about people who are not like us? This is a question vexing artists everywhere these days, usually with a very specific qualification: Can a member of a dominant group write about a more marginalized one? Pacifico’s Marcello, a failed poet living in Rome, dives headfirst into this conundrum but lands with a belly flop—producing a “book,” indistinguishable from the text of Pacifico’s novel, that inevitably foregrounds himself rather than the women he has set out to portray. In detailing his narrator’s tortured attempts to write a book about the women in his life, Pacifico has written himself into a sly metafictional paradox. Marcello’s fumbles prove there’s no escaping our own subjectivity, nor the constraints that gender (and age, and class) impose upon it. But rather than merely shrugging at this conclusion or abandoning the effort altogether, Pacifico charts a third course: He indicts his narrator, and himself, for the arrogance that compels his project, even as he defends his right to undertake it.
Pacifico is a writer practiced in exploring big, capital-letter topics through lowercase moments and minor feelings. His first novel, The Story of My Purity, dissected the relationship between sex and religion; his second, Class, satirized Italian bobos abroad. Each of The Women I Love’s five sections is devoted to a different woman in Marcello’s life, but despite this conceit, there’s no real thematic variation: Characters wander and in out of the narrative, which is largely a recitation of the routines and tonics of bourgeois urban life—drinks, pills, squabbles, trips, affairs, commutes, dinner parties.
Marcello’s women include an ex-lover, his girlfriend turned wife, a sister-in-law he lusts after, his sister, and his mother. Even as they appear intermingled, the ordering of these women represents a loose structural progression from lust to romance to familial love. Pacifico reserves the better part of his mockery for Marcello’s dealings with the women he’s attracted to, exposing how his protagonist’s sense of masculinity constrains his capacity to actually apprehend his friends and lovers. The novel’s epigraph, taken from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, hints at these limits: “But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’…. Back one was always hailed to the letter ‘I.’”
Pacifico’s choice of epigraph doubles as a joke, given that Marcello is often threatened when confronted by the ambitions of women—that is to say, any aspect thereof that he hasn’t already attempted to plumb in his writing. His lover is a woman named Eleanora, who begins as his editing protégé and ends up eclipsing him at work; in bed, she disrupts Marcello’s totalizing portrait of her with a surprising act. It seems out of character, until we consider that our entire sense of her character has been shaped by Marcello, and frustrated desire can make for a very unreliable narrator. When his beautiful, maternal sister-in-law, Daniela, confides to him that she has literary aspirations herself, Marcello turns nasty: “‘Well,’ I said, ‘I respect you—it’s just, I hope it’s because you’re artistically inspired, not because Elena Ferrante’s so hot right now. You know, the desperate housewife with pseudonym, writing from a woman’s point of view in a sexist society….’”
Often, Marcello’s superego swoops in to comment on his worst offenses, in the form of remorseful sentiments inserted in brackets while he’s “editing” these scenes later. Here it’s outsourced to his best friend, who just so happens to share a given name with Pacifico:
[Francesco, my reader and informal editor, said in response to this part: “After reading your whole manuscript and thinking about moments like this, I have to say it really surprises me more people don’t just tell you to fuck off…. Is it women’s internalized sexism? Is that how you manage to get away with this sort of behavior?”]
Marcello has told the reader he’s writing a novel about the women in his life in an attempt to correct for the representational sins of male novelists of yore. The result suggests that self-awareness about these asymmetries does not necessarily result in an ability to rectify them, let alone fairly represent them; is Marcello’s hand-wringing really preferable to the unfazed misogyny of a John Updike or Philip Roth?
But The Women I Love also complicates these questions of permission and representation through its examination of family, exploring the lacunae that lie between parents and children, brothers and sisters—the very people who seem most like one another, and whose conflicts and tensions appear easiest to understand. Yet it is that erroneous sense of comfort or intimacy that makes these relations all the more alienating.
Marcello writes of his family’s “intertwining lives,” and the phrase resonates on several frequencies. His brother lives with Daniela and their three sons in the apartment across the hall from their aging parents, which is also the apartment Marcello grew up in. Underemployed, passing the hours babysitting his nephews, Marcello marvels at how they seem like variations on a theme: “Over the weeks, I saw my features emerge on Angelo’s face: he sometimes felt like my son.” Marcello cadges bites of food off his sister-in-law’s plate; his brother takes a swig of his whiskey soda before mixing his own. Spit, crumbs, pizza crusts, a child’s vomit: All are exchanged, sweetly and messily. But this closeness brings with it a certain eeriness. Marcello is witnessing his own youth refracted back at him—the same people, the same places, but with something fundamentally altered:
How strange it was to wake up in my brother’s marriage bed, while the baby’s grandmother slept next door, and his grandfather, that mysterious man (nervous around my mother, incredibly gracious to me, almost a stranger), lay abandoned to the twin bed in the guest room…. The light my nephews were growing up with was the same light in which I learned how to obey, how to please others, how to leave projects unfinished.
Childhood, Pacifico reminds us, is when we first become individuals: the process that cleaves us, painfully and inevitably, from our families and that brings us to romantic love—and to writing—as subjects, inhabitants of an “I” from which we can never escape.
This is a huge breadth of experience to encompass in a novel, and Pacifico occasionally struggles to unite the various registers he’s working in. At times, it feels like there are two books jockeying for space here: a searching family drama and a brash satire about the pitfalls of representation. Readers with a lower tolerance for male nonsense may grow weary of our narrator’s self-delusion. Pacifico occasionally heaps it on too thick: Marcello and Francesco, for example, sigh over the romantic tribulations of their grandmothers; snapping out of it, one suggests a trip to the bar to “go hit on some girls.”
Marcello’s vacillations between cluelessness and horror at his own loutish behavior can boomerang so quickly as to seem a little contrived. How to square the man with the man-child, the character who looks tenderly after his nephews with the one who can be deceitful and brutish in his romantic dealings? But, of course, Marcello’s no more of an integrated self than the women who keep surprising him with their desires and antipathies. Even he, the consummate subject, is opaque: his motivations hidden from him, his behavior occasionally shocking, his earlier thoughts unrecognizable to the later version of himself. It’s precisely through these confusions and reversals that we perceive Eleanora’s ambivalence, Barbara’s deep hurt, his sister’s desire for acceptance. And therein lies this novel’s ultimate irony: For all of his false starts and misapprehensions, for all he foregrounds himself, Marcello has written five rich and nuanced female characters after all.