On the first page of Natalia Ginzburg’s short novel The Dry Heart, the unnamed narrator shoots her husband, Alberto, between the eyes. It’s a startling opening, although the story soon leaves the murderous present for the narrator’s fraught past. It’s true that Alberto has a dry heart, but so, it initially seems, does the narrator herself. However, as the novel unfolds, we come to sympathize with the rejections, large and small, that she has received during an unhappy childhood in the Italian countryside and an aimless young adulthood in the unidentified city where she now lives. In addition to enduring unfavorable comparisons to her glamorous cousin Francesca, she puts up with her husband’s affair, even ironing his clothes and preparing him flasks of tea before he goes off on trips with his lover.
The book’s title in Italian is È stato così — roughly, “It was like that” — which befits the weirdly straightforward narrative. As a reader, it’s hard not to constantly urge the narrator to step up and do something to change her cheerless life, though of course we know from the opening page that she eventually will do something drastic, indeed. The Dry Heart was first published in 1947, and translated by Frances Frenaye in 1952, but this reprint by New Directions feels very contemporary. Yes, we may find the narrator’s passivity puzzling and her final homicidal impulse extreme, but Ginzburg expertly shows us how a beleaguered woman might arrive at a point where “the time of conventional and clear-cut answers had come forever to a stop.”