Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook has been garnering rave reviews of late and after reading it, I can say that the hype is totally justified. The novel is translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein who was also the translator for Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan Novels.
In the later pages of Forbidden Notebook, there’s a scene where Valeria Cossatti, our protagonist and the narrator is having lunch with her glamorous friend Clara at her place, a penthouse apartment in Rome. Divorced from her husband, Clara is now an independent woman and a successful filmmaker, but by then Valeria’s position has become much more complex. Her outward façade continues to be that of a traditional woman confined to the role of a homemaker and catering to the needs of her husband and two children, but inwardly Valeria has begun to seethe and resist these conventional norms she is expected to adhere to. Clara believes that Valeria has been lucky to achieve all that she wanted by marrying, but by then Valeria and the reader know the reality to be entirely different – Valeria has been experiencing a deep sense of disillusionment, a feeling she is unable to share with Clara.
It is this intense conflict, growing resistance, and the dual nature of her thoughts and emotions that forms the essence of Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook – a rich, multilayered novel of domestic dissatisfaction and awakening seen through the prism of a woman’s private diary. Set in 1950s Rome, not only does the book boldly challenge the validity of restrictive, orthodox roles thrust upon women, and the heartaches of motherhood, but it also dwells on writing as a powerful tool for a woman to find her voice and be heard when those closest to her fail to do so.
The novel’s opening line “I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong” sets the tone of this feverish narrative where one Sunday on a whim Valeria purchases a notebook from a tobacconist’s shop. Thus, in one fell swoop, her action is forbidden on two counts – (a) purchasing notebooks from tobacconists was prohibited on Sundays by law, (b) the very act of diary-writing, hitherto unknown to her, must be shrouded in secrecy without her family ever finding out.
Beginning in November 1950, Valeria’s initial diary entries paint a picture of contented family life, but cracks soon begin to appear on the surface and the growing discontent bubbles forth. We learn that Valeria and her husband Michele are both in their forties with two grown-up children Riccardo and Mirella who are twenty and living with them.
Financially, the family isn’t too well-off. Michele works at a bank and out of necessity Valeria is a working woman too, although privately she enjoys and values her work life with all the sense of pride that comes with it. But it’s a household where Valeria does not have the agency to discuss how meaningful her work is to her, she immediately knows that no one will take her seriously. It is okay for her to publicly admit that she is working to supplement the family income, but she can’t say that her work adds meaning and purpose to her life. Michele does get a promotion and their finances thereafter improve but not significantly enough to improve their standard of living. The strained financial circumstances start impacting Riccardo and Mirella’s outlook too. Riccardo decides to find a job and relocate to Argentina, while Mirella having studied law, starts working in a law firm and begins going out with her colleague, a successful, sophisticated, and much older man who showers her with expensive gifts and instills in her a taste for fine living.
Meanwhile, Valeria is defined by the stereotyped roles of a wife and a mother which imply a life of uncomplaining selflessness and service to others. Dull, monotonous household chores and daily meals take up most of her time, and she struggles to find time for herself, some peace and quiet that she can devote to writing in her notebook. Valeria is aware that even boldly proclaiming her newfound activity will be looked upon incredulously by her family who take her for granted and can’t imagine her indulging in something that is only for herself.
In the beginning, Valeria is tormented by the presence of a secret diary and by its very nature keeping Michele in the dark, and yet she inwardly rebels at the idea of stopping it. She continues to write late into the night but is always fearful of the consequences if her diary is found. Even finding a hiding place for her diary is a challenge, there’s no place in the house that she can truly call her own.
As the novel progresses, we begin to glimpse faults within the family that only fuel Valeria’s growing unhappiness, and the later diary entries reflect her newfound awareness, frustrations with her husband and children, and the growing desire to walk away from it all. She desperately longs for someone to talk to, but having lived a life for so long where her opinions were always moulded by tradition and authority, she can’t quite bring herself to be frank and assertive. In that aspect, the notebook is her silent companion, its pages opening up to her so that she can express herself and her true feelings.
Her children’s behaviour disturbs her too, albeit in different ways. Riccardo grows up to be an unremarkable man with a rigid, limited way of thinking. He begins a relationship with an extremely quiet and docile woman Marina hoping to marry and settle down, a woman who fails to make an impression on Valeria and she wishes Riccardo had chosen a partner who was strong and not meek. But in light of Riccardo’s growing misogynistic tendencies, his choice of a match is hardly a surprise to the reader – Marina is a woman he can boss and push around.
It is Mirella’s transformation into a fiercely independent woman that is one of the most interesting aspects of the book and the many intense, heated discussions that she has with Valeria regarding her choices are one of the novel’s many highlights.
“That is what disgusts me, mamma. You think you’re obliged to serve everyone, starting with me. So, little by little, the others end up believing it. You think that for a woman to have some personal satisfaction, besides those of the house and the kitchen, is a fault, that her job is to serve. I don’t want that, you understand? I don’t want that.”
Essentially, Mirella becomes what Valeria would have wanted to become but could not. Mirella’s observations and arguments display a keen perception and maturity that unnerve Valeria. By taking up a job and becoming financially independent, by taking on a lover and rejecting the established ideal of marriage, she is an embodiment of a modern woman and a threat to Valeria’s outmoded ideas especially at a time when Valeria’s sense of self and the roles assigned to her begins to crumble and breakdown. During one of their many high-octane conversations, Mirella accuses Valeria of being jealous of the choices she has made, which shocks Valeria at the time, but within the private confines of her diary, she’s forced to admit however difficult, that Mirella may be right.
But at the end of the day, Forbidden Notebook is all about Valeria and her continuous struggle with her outward persona that is more and more at odds with her interior self. It is this duality of character, of trying to keep up with both personalities that cause her much anguish, a tussle incredulously unnoticed by those closest to her as they remain selfishly absorbed with their own problems. If she was perfectly happy being a conventional housewife, life would have gone on as before. If she was sure of her desire to upend her current life and start entirely afresh, she would have taken that step too just like her friend Clara did. But the root of Valeria’s problems is the difficulty in making that decision, of resolving that conflict. She’s caught between a rock and a hard place – her newly discovered self-awareness prevents her from going back to her old life, yet at the same time her hard-to-dismantle old-fashioned and patriarchal outlook prevents her from abandoning it.
Conditioned to adhere to conservative roles, Valeria instinctively chastises Mirella for having a lover and rejecting marriage and children, but at the same time finds herself attracted to her boss who is a married man, an affair she is not ready to terminate. She supports Ricardo’s decision to marry and yet disapproves of his choice of a wife; she wished he had not chosen someone weak like Marina, and yet it is obvious that a strong-willed woman would never have married Riccardo.
Mirella’s gutsy decision to live life on her own terms by rebuking conventionality and the blossoming of a romance with her boss Guido are the two chief catalysts that force Valeria to re-examine her life, particularly her marriage, in a new and altered light. Her relationship with Michele has slid into an all-too-comfortable space, the feeling that they live like siblings rather than as husband and wife. The romance and passion of those initial days of marriage have vanished; the ensuing war and birth of the children thereafter fail to revive that intimacy, although they remain fond of one another.
Maybe that’s what for so many years prevents us from being as we were when we were newly married, or when the children were little and didn’t understand anything: it’s the presence of the children on the other side of the wall. You have to wait until they’ve gone out, you have to be certain you won’t be surprised; and the children are everywhere, in a house. At night you have to resort to darkness, to silence, restrain every word, every moan, and in the morning not remember what happened out of fear that they might read the memory of it in your eyes.
Michele is also full of double standards – there’s a scene where he openly admires Clara for her independence, wealth and success, and yet expresses disapproval of Valeria walking down that same path borne out of the idea that it is okay for other women to lead unconventional lives while his wife must remain conventional.
Enmeshed into these narratives is also her complicated relationship with her mother, who isn’t entirely supportive of Valeria’s life and choices even if, ironically, Valeria has never rebelled the way Mirella has.
The past no longer served to protect us, and we had no certainty about the future. Everything in me is confused, and I can’t talk about it with my mother or my daughter because neither would understand. They belong to two different worlds: the one that ended with that time, the other that it gave birth to. And in me these two worlds clash, making me groan. Maybe that’s why I often feel. that I have no substance. Maybe I am only this passage, this clash.
As a result, Valeria’s sense of loneliness only accentuates even when she’s with the family, as she yearns to break the shackles that have bound her to them for so long. She longs for Venice as a gateway to paradise, first with Michele once the children have left home for good, but then later with Guido to escape the claustrophobic confines of home and the demands it makes of her. But will she go through with it is the million-dollar question.
If she had the courage and wasn’t so influenced by the norms of patriarchy, she could have walked away from her husband who viewed her as just another fixture in the house, and she could have left her children who were capable of fending for themselves, even if society would not have accepted the idea of a woman walking out on her husband and children. But for Valeria it’s not that simple because to undertake such a step would mean to admit that her past life accounted for nothing, and accepting that is much harder.
Thus, in Forbidden Notebook, we see a rich array of themes on display – marriage, family life, the sorrow of children flying the nest, the widening generational gap, the importance and value of wealth and money, the tussle between traditional values and modern ideas, but more importantly the sense of purpose in a woman’s life which is not necessarily defined by her husband and children, and her right to her own private space. Forbidden Notebook also explores the idea of writing as a refuge and private act of confession which in Valeria’s case is a double-edged sword – It gives her that alone time and means of expression not available otherwise, and yet it’s also an act that instills unbearable fear, she remains on tenterhooks afraid of its discovery and along with it the invasion of her private domain. Writing in her notebook allows Valeria to dig deeper into her life and yet her observations and analysis also frighten her, she almost wishes she could destroy her notebook so that life could turn back to what it was – simple compared to the complex emotions and feelings the notebook has stirred.
Because when I write in this notebook I feel I’m committing a serious sin, a sacrilege: it’s as if I were talking to the devil. Opening it, my hands tremble; I’m afraid. I see the white pages, the dense parallel lines ready to receive the chronicle of my future days, and even before I’ve lived them, I’m distressed. I know that my reactions to the facts I write down in detail lead me to know myself more intimately every day. Maybe there are people who, knowing themselves, are able to improve; but the better I know myself, the more lost I become. Besides, I don’t know what feelings could stand up to a ruthless, continuous analysis; or who among us, reflected in every action, could be satisfied with ourself. It seems to me that in life you have to choose a line of conduct, confirm it with yourself and others, and then forget those gestures, those actions, that contradict it. You have to forget them. My mother always says that people with short memories are lucky.
Billed as a feminist classic, Forbidden Notebook, then, is a masterclass of insight and imagination, brilliant in the way it provides a window into a woman’s interior life, an internal struggle that oscillates between the desire to find her own voice and also keep it hidden. Highly recommended!