#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews FIDELITY by Marco Missiroli

Fidelity appeared in English in 2021 already festooned with praise from Italian readers. It quickly attracted tributes from a broad range of English-language admirers: from writers, such as Jonathan Safran Foer, who described it as ‘thrilling’ and ‘brilliant’, to the broadsheets – ‘gripping’ – and the tabloids, who called it a ‘bonkbuster’ and ‘an absolute scorcher’. It is also being made into a Netflix series – high praise indeed, and what I imagine most novelists secretly hope for. Suffice to say, before I started reading Fidelity I was both anxious (would I be disappointed after this build-up?) and excited (I rarely get to review bonkbusters!). Fidelity is all of the above but much more nuanced. It is a wise novel of subtleties and ambiguities.

We meet all five of the main characters in the first few pages: married couple Carlo and Margherita; their respective ‘infidelities’, Sofia and Andrea; as well as Anna, Margherita’s mother, the emotional anchor of the whole novel. The five share the narrative viewpoint, which shifts continually, sometimes mid-paragraph. It shouldn’t work as a technique, but it does, seamlessly, each observation and character quietly illuminating the previous one. We are even presented with the main facts of the infidelities in the first few pages, or ‘the misunderstanding’ as Carlo and Margherita call it. What we don’t yet know is why this loving, happy young couple are unfaithful to each other, and the impact that their infidelities have on their lives and on the lives of those close to them.

Carlo is a university professor of creative writing, and Margherita an architect turned estate agent. Books and writing are significant and interesting components of this story. She is a voracious reader, and he is a failed novelist. They live in Milan – richly described throughout. They love each other deeply and enjoy great sex – also richly described! Nevertheless, on the opening page, we see Carlo lusting after his writing student Sofia and, soon, Margherita after her physiotherapist, Andrea. Neither of them initially understands their betrayals, but admit they brought them happiness. The novel explores the ambiguities of their relationship – and by extension also our relationships: the white lies and half-truths we tell one another, often unwittingly, in order to survive, in order to nurture stable friendships and marriages. All this takes place against a backdrop of reassuring normality. Everyone in the novel eats, drinks, reads books, listens to music, takes buses or taxis, tries to find meaningful employment. Whether teaching, managing property, massaging, waitressing, dressmaking or shopkeeping, we never doubt that Missiroli knows what he is talking about.

Carlo and Margherita’s inner struggles intensify. He believes he’s ‘done nothing wrong’ in pursuing Sofia, as his marriage is still intact; he is simply a ‘male stereotype incarnate’. But ‘his hunger for Sofia was becoming an uneasiness that the family hearth prevented him from living fully, half of himself fighting the other half’. The betrayal for both husband and wife was, they each conclude, nothing more than giving in to the joy, discovering a sense of abandon and liberation within themselves, ultimately strengthening their marriage.

These fine lines and moral ambiguities are explored in equal measure through the stories of Sofia and Andrea, who are by no means portrayed as victims but active participants and fully rounded, complicated human beings. Ten years later these four people – plus Margherita’s wonderful mother, Anna, a woman of profound grace and emotional intelligence – are still dancing round each other.

A novel that sets itself up from the start to examine the nature of betrayal and the truth about relationships does set the bar high and does raise expectations in the reader, and Marco Missiroli is successful, but not in the way you might expect. His skill is not to draw grand conclusions or deliver judgements about love and marriage – and certainly not to create a salacious bonkbuster – but rather to allow us to observe the intimate thoughts of his female and male protagonists in order to experience them as equally flawed, complex and in pursuit of fulfilment.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

FIDELITY

By Marco Missiroli

translated by Alex Valente

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2021)


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Rosie Goldsmith is director and founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018-2020.

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