This week brings another fantastic work in translation. (If you didn’t catch my review of A Fairy Tale last week, go read it now!) Sweet Dreams, by Italian journalist Massimo Gramellini, is published in the U.S. by Atria Books. The book was the most successful Italian novel of last year, and has now been translated into 20 languages and sold 1.5 million copies. A quietly powerful bestseller, the story follows young Massimo as he grows up and tries to deal with the loss of his mother, whom he lost when he was nine years old.
Massimo’s young life was ideal until his mother, weakened from cancer, died of a heart attack one night after tucking him into bed. After her death, Massimo is sure, with a young boy’s certainty, that she will return. When he finally accepts that she will not, he begins his journey to come to terms with her death—a journey that takes most of his young adult life. We watch as he encounters maternal substitute after substitute, none measuring up to the warm, almost legendary memory of his mother. Peevish babysitters and loving godmothers alike are shunned because they simply cannot measure up. He also carries his eternal invisible companion, Belfagor, a dark presence that weighs heavy on his mind and manifests as compulsion and depression—an element of the psyche that many adult readers will find familiar.
Massimo grows to adulthood and becomes a journalist, covering the triumph of sports and the gut-wrenching tragedy of wars. His relief is often found in the game of soccer or in the arms of girlfriends. Eventually, after writing his first book, his godmother reveals the truth to him: the story of his mother’s death is different than the one he was told as a child. It’s only after learning the truth, and realizing that he knew it all along, that he is able to forgive his mother and move past this early tragedy.
Although it is called a novel, Sweet Dreams is largely autobiographical, belonging to that fascinating section of nonfiction that blends and bends its lines enough to become fiction. One isn’t sure what parts of the novel are “real” and which ones are “made up,” but in the end it doesn’t particularly matter; what is certain is that the veracity of emotion is carried throughout. As we follow Massimo’s life, we feel strongly the grief and confusion of childhood, the struggle of adulthood, and the peace of acceptance.
A strong book full of insight into the process of grief and coming to terms, Sweet Dreams is a welcome addition to the English language market.
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood