A Novel Asks: How Should a Man Write About Women?

The last section, “My Mother,” is written in exquisitely spare, tender prose. (Elizabeth Harris, here especially, translates with a light, graceful touch.) Describing an evening at the theater with his mother, Marcello notes “the kinship of our bodies, the same way we both rush to take our seats and then never quite settle in.” In his previous novels, Pacifico sketched a parental relationship important above all for its financial benefits. His tone here, however, suggests an attitude beyond gratitude, approaching reverence, for the generation that lived through and prospered after the trauma of World War II.

Marcello’s stated desire — what he calls “the real point of the book” — is to figure out “what’s left for a man to write when he’s writing about women.” If the male writer’s goal is to neither render judgment on his female characters nor reduce them to stereotype, “is there anything left?” It’s a telling question for both subject and author, the former trying to do the women he loves justice, the latter attempting, for perhaps the first time, to work in a sincere, rather than satirical, mode.

Pacifico finds his answer in a kind of wistful reportage, striving not to interpret these women but simply to portray them. Marcello’s mother is not, ultimately, understood; she is, however, seen. Pacifico employs this mode in Marcello’s self-description as well. When, late in the novel, a sexual encounter that at first seems consensual becomes an assault, he remains largely descriptive, conveying his feelings in the moment without pretending these can excuse his behavior. “I won’t,” Marcello says, “destroy the evidence.”

“Words are the purifying fire,” Pacifico writes in “Class.” “Purgatory is an area of pure language in which the dead examine, alone but guided by the invisible force of the angels, the shortcomings of their life.” Pacifico’s first two novels skewered their characters’ shortcomings; they were also, notably, narrated at least in part by characters who turned out to be dead. With “The Women I Love,” Pacifico seems to have passed out of purgatory and into a less damning realm, one in which human flaws are to be exposed but also pitied, not mocked.

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