The Sun and Other Stars: A Novel

  • By Brigid Pasulka
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 336 pp.

Death, love, and a soccer ball collide in this enchanting tale.

The Sun and Other Stars: A Novel

Grief is arguably our most common literary subject, and for good reason: it is universal.  No matter who you are, what family or class or country you come from, death is an unavoidable fact of life. But it is precisely that universality that can make grief such a trap as a subject for contemporary writers: what, we think, can be left to say on the subject?

Part of the success of Brigid Pasulka’s second novel, The Sun and Other Stars, is how she immerses this time-honored theme in the particularities of small-town life as experienced by her smart and engaging narrator, Etto. Born and raised on the Italian Riviera in the no-longer-fashionable resort town of San Benedetto, 22-year-old Etto has suffered a double blow before the book opens: the death of his adored twin brother, Luca, a rising soccer star, followed a few months later by the death of his American-born mother. Etto and his father, the town butcher, have fallen into joyless routine — alternating shifts at the butcher shop, taking their meals in the town’s only tavern, and rarely speaking, save for the father’s routine scoldings about Etto’s carelessness at work. While his friend Fede, expert at flirting with an ever-dwindling quantity of young women tourists, encourages the socially awkward Etto to shake off his blues by joining in, and Martina, the tavern keeper, offers maternal sympathy, Etto feels isolated in his grief.  He describes the days after both deaths:

“Sure, there were the respectable visits right after, when everyone would come and pat our hands and drop off plates of food, but even then, they always came in pairs and hurried away spooked, like if they looked Death or Suffering or Heartache directly in the eye, it might be contagious. This is another thing you will discover if you lose someone close to you — if you ever want to go out in public again, you’ll have to learn how to treat your grief like a goiter or a great big boil. You’ll have to learn how to camouflage it and tuck it away so as not to scare the living.“

Our hero’s sense of alienation is only increased by the fact that he alone is indifferent to soccer, or calcio, the sport that obsesses everyone else in San Benedetto and indeed, the country. (It has become a cliché to say that soccer is a religion in Italy, so instead I will quote a friend of mine from Puglia: “In Italy, you are born, and then you are given a soccer ball.”) Immune to the town’s passion for the nearest professional team, Genoa, and annoyed by his father’s devotion to one particular Genoa player, the Ukrainian superstar Yuri Fil, Etto ignores the fierce nightly tavern debates over rumors that the injured Fil might have been involved in match-fixing. And then one evening, just after he has shut down the butcher shop, Fil’s younger sister, Zhuki, knocks on the door. The soccer star has come to San Benedetto to recover from his injury and dodge the calcio paparazzi. Renting the town’s one grand villa, he installs his entourage — his showgirl wife, their two children, a trainer, a bodyguard, and his sister. He dispatches Zhuki to buy food for the household, and she embarrasses and enchants Etto, who agrees to keep the family’s presence in San Benedetto to himself. In a town with few secrets, Etto decides to keep this one as long as he can. 

Soon, Yuri and Zhuki have mowed and reclaimed the town’s overgrown soccer pitch, neglected since Luca’s death, and with the aid of elaborately rigged lighting, they practice there at night. Dismissing Etto’s protests, Yuri insists on teaching our hero to play calcio. These moonlit meetings on the pitch provide Etto with the most elation, the most frustration, and the most real emotion he has felt since his losses. The Ukrainian brother and sister, temporarily hiding from their lives, bring Etto back to his.

Like all idylls, this one cannot last. Rumors circulate that Yuri Fil is nearby. The resulting denouement involves the entire town — without revealing too much, I will say that even that embodiment of Italian female world-weariness, the tavern keeper Martina, finds herself shaken out of the everyday in surprising ways. But it is Etto we are rooting for, and Etto who needs reconciliation with his grieving father, as well as the ghosts of his mother and brother. And Zhuki, on her own quest to establish a life not wholly dependent on Yuri’s success, is his compelling touchstone in this enchanting novel.

My quibbles are minor and only with the last few chapters. Despite the richness of her core narrative, Pasulka adds perhaps a few too many supporting layers to the tale. One subplot in particular, regarding a modernized version of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, struck me as unconvincing. But in Etto, she has created a deeply compelling and empathetic creature. In his insights, his forthright pain, and his self-deprecating humor, he reminded me of Holden Caulfield, though destined more securely for a happy ending.

Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, Difficult Weather, Orpheus in the Park, and The Last Girl (forthcoming, Autumn 2014); a one-act play, Looking for Guenevere; and a novel, A Secret Woman. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, the Columbia Book Award, and an EMMA award for excellence in journalism. She is a Research Member of Kellogg College, Oxford, attached to the Centre for Creative Writing, and serves on the Centre’s Advisory Panel.

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