Reading Reports

Elena Varvello
La vita felice

Report by Marco Amerighi

Marco Amerighi was born in Pisa in 1982. After a degree in Spanish Literature and a Ph.D. in Foreign Literatures, he moved to Milan, where he currently works as an...

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Alex Valente (Prato 1989-) has recently completed his studies, from English Language and Literature (BA Hons, Leeds), to Literary Translation (MA; PhD, UEA). He has published translations, short prose and...

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The book
It’s the summer of 1978 and the bottom of a quarry in Ponte, a small village in Northern Italy, a missing boy’s body is discovered. People start hunting down the monster; only Ettore doesn’t take part in the search parties. Since he was fired from the textile plant, something inside him cracked. And while Ettore spends his days wandering around the woods in his van, coming home late at night, ranting about a conspiracy against him, his son Elia finds refuge in his new friendship with Stefano Trabuio (his age, no rules, cocky) and the unstoppable attraction for his mother, Anna (and old friend of his father’s). Then, one night, Ettore notices a young woman on the edge of the road, moves over, asks her if she needs a lift. The woman gets in the van but Ettore, instead of driving her home, suddenly swerves and drives off into the woods.

As the story begins, Elia is sixteen. He goes to school but doesn’t seem too interested, if at all. Ettore’s episodes, bringing him to drag his son out of bed at night to watch the darkness outside, his bouts of rage and disappearances into the woods, have made him a gloomy child, weighed down by a sense of abandonment he cannot come to terms with. Stefano, only just arrived in Ponte, is the spark (irreverent, sincere, broken) igniting Elia’s rage powder: his desire to free himself from a broken family. Around these men, Varvello poses a constellation of silent women, who shine with bravery and determination: Ettore’s wife (who supports her husband’s unbalanced life instead of living her own); Anna Trabuio (who sees in Elia the Ettore she had probably been in love with); and of course, the victim of Ettore’s madness: the missing young woman.

Language and style
The novel is structured like a thriller: short chapters, incessant rhythm, telegrafic language, devoid of flourishes. The narrative voice – Elia in his thirties – is always convincing and highlights the perfect mimetic work of Varvello, who chooses to stay to one side, in the undertow, only surfacing in some dream-like scenes of enormous narrative impact or in the descriptive shots that recall Alice Munro in Runaway or Cormac McCarthy in Outer Dark.

La vita felice (‘The happy life’) isn’t your average novel revolving around a missing case. In her choice to tell the kidnapping in parallel to the real story (as if it were a story within the story), Varvello not only taps into the thriller dimension of the book, but opens a door into a more human one, from where the reader can observe the dailyness of its characters, dealing with their own flaws and weaknesses. As exquisite addition to the plot’s weaving, three or four narrative twists (such as choosing to let Elia imagine the woman’s kidnapping at the hands of his father) are able to shock, surprise and convince the reader, moving the novel further away from traditional genre conventions, bestowing upon it the authority and literariness of a refined auteur noir.

Why translate
«La vita felice was the story of my father. My father was ill, he suffered from bipolar disorder. He was depressed and manic. He was a loser and a megalomaniac. A kind, intelligent, and funny and threatening man.» In the author’s words, we can read the added value to the novel. Not the mere biographical matrix, but the need to tell a story to fill a void, to discover something more about ourselves. This is what the characters do. This is what all good books should teach us.

«A beautiful, terrifying novel. A surprising piece of writing».
Cristina Comencini

«It reminds of L’isola di Arturo… The novel carries you along and makes you read it with a tightening of the throat, like a noir based on daily life, with no blood and more ruthless for it.»
Paolo Di Paolo


Elena Varvello was born in Turin in 1971. She has published the poetry collections Perseveranza è salutare (‘Perseverance is healthy’; Portofranco, 2002) e Atlanti (‘Atlases’; Canopo, 2004). She won the Premio Settembrini with the short story collection L’economia delle cose (‘The economy of things’; Fandango, 2007), was nominated for the Premio Strega, and won the 2008 Premio Bagutta Opera Prima. Her first novel was published in 2011, La luce perfetta del giorno (‘The perfect light of day’; Fandango). She teaches at the Scuola Holden, in Turin.
20 February 2017
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