Brief encounters can have as big an impact as a lifelong relationship. Similarly, a short work of fiction can resonate more deeply than longer volumes. That’s the case with Like Family, the elegiac new novella by Paolo Giordano. In this deceptively simple tale of a widowed nanny who, we learn on the first page, has died, Giordano shows us how lives can intersect in profound and unexpected ways.
The unnamed 35-year-old narrator is a physicist who isn’t sure whether his university contract, soon to expire, will be renewed. His wife, Nora, is an interior designer. When Nora is bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, the couple hires a childless, elderly woman known as Mrs. A. The couple nicknames her Babette because, like the Isak Dinesen character, she prepares large, fancy meals for her employers. After their son, Emanuele, is born, the couple hires Mrs. A to stay on as a nanny and housekeeper. A fastidious woman who, each morning, rewashes the dishes the narrator had washed the night before, she becomes so much a part of their family that she accompanies the family on Emanuele’s first day of school.
After only eight years in the family’s employment, however, Mrs. A calls one morning to say that she can no longer work for them. The reason she cites is that she’s tired. But a subsequent diagnosis reveals the real reason: She has stage four lung cancer. Among the many insults the disease inflicts is that she has to stop attending church because her incessant coughing, amplified by the church’s acoustics, disturbs the other parishioners.
The obvious meaning of the book’s title is that Mrs. A is like a member of the family, just as she thinks of Emanuele as the grandson she and her late husband never had. But the book also asks us to consider what constitutes a family. This poignant work points out that there is no one way to define a family, and that, in any definition, the primary ingredient is the ability to love.