#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews HEAVEN AND EARTH by Paolo Giordano

Whenever an author has already made their mark with an impressive, prize-winning novel, you dread their subsequent books, out of fear that the new one simply won’t match up. This is the case for me with the Italian author Paolo Giordano. He was a superstar aged twenty-six with his first novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a tightly plotted and highly original bestseller. He’s now nearly forty, and after two more successful novels, Like Family and The Human Body, in 2020 he notched up an HBO/Netflix series We Are Who We Are, as well as an important non-fiction exploration of the COVID-19 pandemic, How Contagion Works,and the publication of his latest novel Heaven and Earth, in the translation by Anne Milano Appel. I had postponed reading it up to now out of fear that it would disappoint. It does not. (It’s too long, but more on that later.)

Divorare il cielo, its 2018 Italian title, means ‘devour the sky’ but I much prefer the English title, Heaven and Earth, which immediately reminds us of Shakespeare and Hamlet, when Hamlet suggests to Horatio that human knowledge is limited: ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Paolo Giordano is a scientist turned writer. His novels address both the ambition and grandeur of human endeavour and emotion as well as the facts and limitations. The four main characters, Teresa and the three half-brothers Tommaso, Nicola and Bern, meet one hot summer as young teenagers in Puglia in southern Italy. The boys live with their guardian, Cesare, on his ecologically run smallholding next door to Teresa’s grandmother’s home. Intrigued by their closeness and strangeness, Teresa spends more and more time with the boys, swimming, observing their work on the farm, their prayer meetings and lessons with Cesare and his wife Floriana. Far from being a creepy cult leader, Cesare appears wise and kind in his care of the troubled boys. Teresa is intrigued by their conversations about ethics, religion, bees, frogs and the transmigration of souls. Cesare is guiding them towards a better life, beyond the city, capitalism and consumerism (which Teresa knows all too well, as she is from Turin) and through them she glimpses another way to live, a world of ideas, faith – and love. Over the next few summers the four teenagers develop an exhilarating, if competitive, friendship – ‘The intricate tangle of attractions that bound us as kids’but Bern and Teresa go further. They fall in love and have sex, sealing their destiny, happily and tragically, for the next couple of decades. 

Teresa’s grandmother warns her ‘we never fully know someone’, and this is possibly the motto of the novel. The utopian project pursued by Cesare, adopted later by Teresa and the friends as young adults, fails as cracks in their personalities and ideals are exposed. They all have secrets and back stories, which, triggered by temptation or radical idealism, become destiny. Paolo Giordano is a courageous and elegant writer, unafraid of creating complex characters and moral dilemmas. He’s also a marvellous storyteller, giving us a well-paced plot with some quite breathless, heart-stopping moments. The Italian setting is attractive but never over-romanticised (so tempting when you are writing about Italy), and cleverly addresses the familiar issues of Italy’s city-country, north-south divides. Teresa is the first-person narrator and the story is driven by her love for the fanatical Bern, around whom everything revolves. Maybe the motto of the novel should actually be ‘the frightening immensity of … love’.

With great relief I can say I love Heaven and Earth, and Paolo Giordano’s daring ideas and lively writing. However, like its young protagonists, the novel strives for something greater without quite getting there. It is flabby, there are too many long passages of stilted reported speech by other characters. It reaches for heaven, soars close to the sun, and falls back to earth.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


Written by Paolo Giordano

Translated by Anne Milano Appel

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson (2020)

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Category: ReviewsJanuary 2021


One comment

  1. I agree with your sense that this novel, although excellent, doesn’t quite achieve the greatness it strives for.

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