Not to be Overlooked
By Sandhya Christine Theodore
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich and Dirty Women by Madhumita Bhattacharyya.
Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (translated from Italian by Howard Curtis)
Leo Gazzara moved from Milan to Rome for a job at a medical-literary newspaper. When the paper shuts down, he spends his days and nights in a drunken haze, almost penniless, living off the goodwill of his rich friends. Last Summer in the City follows an almost-thirty-year-old Leo grappling with his complicated love for a city and a woman.
Leo’s life of heedless pleasure-seeking is interrupted by his sporadic attempts to get his life together. He grapples with failure after failure, losing jobs and people along the way. He meets Arianna, an architecture student, an enchanting woman as lost and confused as him. Her high hopes of saving Venice from drowning are forever on the back-burner as she meanders through her days, not unlike Leo. Leo escapes his dull and directionless days with his friend Graziano, with whom he intends to make a film. Last Summer in the City offers a slice of life of the unsatisfied rich and social-ladder climbers.
Interspersed with the story are multiple love letters to the city itself. Leo holds Rome in the highest regard despite many of his friends escaping to what they deem greener pastures.
“She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half-measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved.”
The story is filled with careful descriptions of settings that might be the next best thing to a Roman holiday.
“You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, when she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot.”
This is the first translation of the novel into English. It includes an afterword by Andre Aciman that traces the rocky history of the novel which has drifted in and out of the spotlight in Italy. Aciman also traces numerous parallels between Leo Gazzara and Calligarich himself that make the story all the more interesting.
Last Summer in the City which was originally published in 1973 can seem a bit outdated at the surface level. But the abundance of feeling that this short read is bursting with will be relevant to readers even today.
Dirty Women by Madhumita Bhattacharyya
Kolkata, India: a vibrant city with a colourful music scene. A city that seems to have made room for the charismatic and beautiful Drishti, a successful singer-songwriter. But the city’s acceptance of Drishti’s unconventional life is not without its limits. When her four-year-old daughter disappears from her home while she’s out performing at night, the city is quick to point accusing fingers at the single mother determined to live life on her own terms.
Ahana writes a true-crime book within the novel. She tells her perspective of 2002 when she was assigned to the biggest story of her career. One night, Drishti’s performance at a hotel bar is interrupted by a call from her domestic help, Sumita. The disappearance of the popular singer’s daughter fires up the imagination of the city. The news media chases juicy gossip about Drishti’s personal life and the identity of Tara’s father. Ahana, a young reporter on the entertainment beat who usually covers swanky events around the city is suddenly expected to cover a high-profile crime. Ahana has to balance her position as Drishti’s sympathetic acquaintance and her editor’s source of inside details.
Bhattacharyya has put a unique spin on the traditional crime novel. Dirty Women explores messy conceptions of gender, morality and privacy in an environment of sensationalist media. She successfully weaves together stories of private and public affairs. She tells a story that is gripping yet believable.
Every character is written with purpose. The novel gives an all-encompassing view of a society without a uniform moral compass. Even the main characters are written unapologetically. Drishti is flawed and many readers will consider her unlikeable. Yet Bhattacharyya manages to arouse sympathy for her plight while also highlighting her flaws.
Dirty Women may seem slow-paced for a crime novel. But that is because it is more than just the case of a missing person. It is a story of how a society treats the perceived rebels. It is an exploration of societal expectations and the many women struggling to live beyond them.