A Cloud On Sand

Here is a first novel that — thank God — can’t be described as promising. It’s far too good to be promising, and after reading it you are far too busy savoring it to look forward, with considerable interest, to what the author may be capable of in the not-too-distant future, etc. Gabriella De Ferrari clearly doesn’t know that a first novel is supposed to have something wrong with it. She has rashly written a classically assured, quietly enthralling masterpiece.

Unforgettable characters, images, and scenes abound: A young girl on a beach near Genoa hides herself in the cape of her mother’s elderly ex-lover as a storm approaches them and is then swept into his arms and carried to shelter, where his laughter eclipses the thunder; a bewildered Italian businessman explores an ominously ruined estancia that he owns deep in the Argentine pampas; a handsome middle-aged man calls on the beautiful widowed mother of the young woman he wants to marry and gets the response ”What nonsense, that naïve girl, that nun, keep you happy for thirty or forty years? You’d be sleeping in separate rooms before the end of the first month.

Come, don’t make yourself ridiculous. Spend a few days in Paris with me and I’ll cure you of this silly infatuation with my daughter.”

A Cloud on Sand, set in Italy and South America in the period spanning the two World Wars, is above all about that mother and that daughter. Both become defiantly independent — the mother defying the poverty of her family and the social conventions of her village; the daughter defying the mother, among other afflictions. The mother, Dora di Credi, is the book’s implacable, elemental force — a Mediterranean tempest, a ”connoisseur of chaos.” While hhr much older husband manages his real estate empire in Argentina, she lives in a large house haughtily overlooking the Italian village where she grew up as a silent, aloof, and beautiful girl.

She neglects no opportunity to scandalize the villagers and the gentry of nearby Genoa — parading in dazzling, bejeweled costumes; driving away servants; creating bravura scenes in humble shops and patrician restaurants; disappearing to Paris with her lovers. One of the lovers, Count Mora, swept out of his correctly moribund life by her and soon dropped, consoles himself by becoming a second father to Dora’s children, Antonia and Marco, making up for her contemptuous neglect of them. His wry, meditative voice is the main source of this novel’s abundant and serene worldly wisdom.

Growing up with a quieter version of her mother’s beauty and determination, Antonia attracts her own middle-aged Italian businessman who has made good in South America. As a 15-year-old bride, Dora took one look at Buenos Aires and demanded to be sent back to Italy; Antonia makes arid Yayaku (Peru, more or less) her refuge from Dora and World War II, and there her accumulating love for her husband mirrors her tender childhood relationship with Count Mora.

The South American half of the book, much of it told through letters, is more exotic but less dramatic than the Italian half, dominated by the indomitable Dora and the poker-faced comedy of her affair with Mora. But it is all equally vivid, engaging, affecting, and unsentimental. And the prose is superb — poised and polished, lyrical in the book’s haunting images, pungent in its swift vignettes of character.

With its rich, unerring sense of history, class, and culture and its subtle social comedy, A Cloud on Sand can be honorably mentioned in the same breath as another first novel with an evocative Italian background, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s classic The Leopard.

According to the publisher’s note, Gabriella De Ferrari, clearly of Italian descent, was born and raised in Peru, was educated and now lives in the United States, and has had a distinguished career as curator and administrator at several art museums. It seems to have been better preparation for writing a flawlessly civilized, intelligent, graceful, and moving novel than a multitude of creative-writing workshops and a truckload of critical solicitude and advice.

A Cloud On Sand
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