Book review: Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio

Temporary Perfections
by Gianrico Carofiglio
translated by Anthony Shugaar
Bitter Lemon Press 2011 (first published in Italy 2010)

Those transient and rare occasions when everything seems to work, where we hesitate to look back or forward because we know that what has been or what is to come cannot match this moment – these are the temporary perfections that infuse the pages of Gianrico Carofiglio’s fourth novel in his series about Bari lawyer Guido Guerrieri. Guido has expanded his practice to accommodate two new colleagues, and as the novel starts is slightly regretting his move from his traditional old office to the newly renovated yet bland location that, perhaps, signifies membership of the professional establishment from which he prefers to remain apart. He has to go to Rome to present a case in court: at the airport his taxi driver has some books open on the front passenger seat, leading to a literary conversation between the two men. We don’t see the taxi driver again after he drops Guido off at his destination; this vignette is typical of this novel, which in its many small encounters and digressions epitomises the philosophy of the title.

The plot proper is a departure for Guido in that it is not a legal case in which he is defending someone accused of a crime. One of his friends introduces him to an elderly couple whose daughter Manuela went missing six months ago. It turns out that the couple are not actually elderly, they’re the same age as Guido (mid-forties), but have been transformed by grief and anxiety. The police are closing the case for lack of any leads, so the parents persuade Guido to look into it again for them, in case anything has been missed. Despite misgivings, Guido takes on the assignment, meeting up with the investigating officer, an old friend, to discuss the case and to find out if there are any possible new avenues to explore. There aren’t, but Guido decides to re-interview all the people who knew or last saw the girl in the few days before she went missing. Guido’s reinvestigation is the main focus of this book, but along the way there are many digressions, either reflections by Guido on his past or in encounters he has in court or in social situations. The most vividly portrayed of these side-issues concerns the Chelsea Hotel, a bar that Guido frequents (it’s a gay bar, but he discovered this fact rather late), and his friendship with the owner Nadia, an ex-client of Guido’s from a time when she was tried for running a call-girl operation. Nadia and Guido are two lonely people, both lost in their own worlds and sort of making the best of it, but failing to connect on some level despite their apparent compatibility.

Up until about two-thirds of the way through this book, I was quite captivated by its meandering charms, its refusal to conform to the usual format of the crime novel and instead show us so much of Guido’s thoughts and observations – and nice sense of humour, not least with “Mister Bag”. (Yes, it is an American translation.) The investigation itself is rather one-dimensional, in that each of the missing girl’s friends is called into Guido’s office to go over with him what they remember of their relationship or encounters with her, but I was happy to be carried along by it.

It is when Caterina, Manuela’s best friend, enters the plot that I began to feel uncomfortable about the book. Guido is attracted to the girl even though she’s pretty tedious and he’s the same age as her parents. This does not stop him agreeing to go with her to Rome to talk to Manuela’s flatmate, without telling anyone, and with inevitable consequences. As he spends more time with Caterina, it becomes more obvious that she’s shallow and petulant, yet Guido seems to be able to ignore this because of her physical charms and flirtatious manner. At the same time, Nadia is not only of a similar age and temperament to Guido, but is an interesting and deep person, yet he does not seem interested in her. He does, however, reflect later that she did not, in his opinion, deserve to be labelled as a criminal for procuring young girls for older men for a hefty commission because, according to Guido’s thoughts, nobody was harmed – a view with which I strongly disagree.

I thought a lot less of Guido as a character for these reasons. And sadly, the plot is a bit of a let-down too. There are many leads that Guido could have followed up but did not, limiting his interest to about three people who know Manuela. The book is 280 pages long and on page 245 one of these people remembers something that he/she had forgotten to mention to anyone before which immediately leads Guido to work out what has happened to Manuela. This leads to a sad ending to the novel, but unfortunately its poignancy was somewhat marred for me by my lack of sympathy for Guido’s views and actions about women. He is a character with much to like about him, particularly his literary digressions and his ponderings on the morality of his ethics in defending sleazy types and on the Italian legal system, but if he’s going to be knocking around with girls half his age (and agonising about it, even more boring) and concluding nobody is harmed when teenagers are involved in prostitution with old men, I’ll have to think hard before reading any future books about him, even though I’ve enjoyed the previous three novels a lot — as before, in this one the settings are so well described and the writing so pleasant to experience.

I purchased my copy of the book.

Other reviews of Temporary Perfections are at: The Game’s Afoot, The New Statesman (almost a parody of what one might expect of a New Statesman review!), Shots (brief), Crime Time, The Bookbag (a positive and well-written review) and the Washington Post (which calls the book a “captivating, intellectual novel”).

Gianrico Carofiglio’s books in series order at Euro Crime (includes links to reviews of them).
My reviews of The Past is a Foreign Country (a very good standalone novel), and the previous three in this series: Involuntary Witness, A Walk in the Dark, and Reasonable Doubts.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

10 thoughts on “Book review: Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio

  1. Maxine – Thanks very much for this thorough, candid and well-written review. I’ve had it happen, too, where I sympathise with a character until she or he shows a character flaw that I find it hard to accept. I’m sorry you didn’t like the book more than you did, even if there were things to like about it. I’d read good reviews of it elsewhere and thought of reading it, but….maybe it won’t bounce as high up on my TBR list…

  2. Thanks, Maxine, for this excellent review. Big statement coming up: I have yet to read an Italian crime novel whose gender politics did not have me climbing the walls or severely compromising my enjoyment of the text. You know all about my annoyance with Ingrid in the Camilleri novels, and I’ve just finished reading River of Shadows by Varesi, whose Angela is yet another male fantasy writ large (lots of sex but no commitment please!). There MUST be a male Italian crime writer out there who has a slightly more nuanced view of women?! If anyone has found him, please do let me know. .

    • I know what you mean, Mrs P – Lucarelli is another one – though he has a female protag, the way she is portrayed…..hmmm….I had actually thought that Carofiglio was the exception, until reading this book! Donna Leon is OK of course, but not a male author nor Italian. Barbara Baraldi, a female author who is Italian (I presume) in her novel The Girl With The Crystal Eyes, is right up there with the worst offenders among the male authors. This attitude to women is the reason why I only read one novel by Montalban (Spanish) – relentless sexism I can take as “part and parcel” if the book is good, but when the author is approving about old men and teenage girls (and the plot of the Seven Seas by Montalban is this and more), that’s it for me.

  3. I’m afraid I would agree with you on this issue, however, I think I’ll read the book anyway.
    This post reminds me that sometimes I grit my teeth as I read about Salvo Montalbano’s exploits with women — and, sometimes, his sexist language. I suspend all of my feelings about this as I like the characters and stories. And, often, as in August Heat, the Vigata detective comes through for a young women and in others, has sympathy for women in tough spots.
    If I want to read any books from Italy without any sexism, I must confess that I turn to Donna Leon’s books. However, I ask, must we turn to women authors if we want to avoid attitudes which are harmful to women?

    • I don’t mind the sexism when it’s equal footings/reflection of reality, it is when it is about old(er) men and teenage girls that I part company with whoever writes the drivel concerned.

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