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Me and You by Niccolò Ammaniti

First published in Italian in 2010; first published in translation in Great Britain in 2011; published by Grove Press on February 7, 2012

Lorenzo Cumi is a boy in a bubble. He has no friends. As a kid who imagines his room to be "a cube that floated through space," Lorenzo is untroubled by solitude. He believes he would be content as a prisoner in solitary confinement. Lorenzo knows he isn't "normal" but he's studied his classmates so that he can pretend to be. When his protective camouflage fails to ward off the bullies, he imitates the bullies. The pretense allows him to make it through the day without being scorned or injured, but by the time he is fourteen, he concludes that he is only happy when he is by himself. No amount of pretending could change the world outside his house, a world "filled with violence, competition, and suffocation," where "girls are mean and they make fun of you."

To mollify his parents (who worry about his strangeness), Lorenzo pretends he is leaving home on a weeklong ski trip to Cortina with classmates who didn't actually invite him. He plans to spend the week in the basement of his apartment building in Rome, armed with a Playstation, Stephen King novels, and Marvel comic books. He spends his time musing about his mother (to whom he is overly attached) and his rebellious half-sister Olivia, who regards their father as "the master of repression and silence." His days in the basement seem paradisiacal until Olivia shows up. Although she's an unwelcome and annoying guest, her problems force Lorenzo to confront his own isolation from reality.

Me and You is a charming little novel that perfectly captures the hell of being a fourteen year old outsider. It begins and ends with Lorenzo looking back on a formative event in his life ten years after it occurred, an event that may or may not have caused him to burst free of his bubble and accept the value and necessity of friendship. I'm often put off by novels in which a character undergoes a profound change as the result of a single non-traumatic experience -- changes in personality tend to be gradual and stories in which a character suddenly "awakens" to a new view of life often strike me as artificial -- but everything about Me and You is authentic, from young Lorenzo's voice and attitude to his emerging self-realization near the novel's end. The ending is jarring, completely at odds with everything that precedes it, and that too gives Me and You a feeling of genuineness. Some readers might be put off by the ambiguity surrounding Lorenzo's personality change, but what happens to Lorenzo after his week in the basement didn't strike me as necessary information in the context of the story that Ammaniti decided to tell.

Niccolò Ammaniti writes gracefully and economically. The narrative is never rushed or hurried; it evokes a childhood sense of time, when days are long and offer endless possibilities. At the same time, the story moves so swiftly that it comes to an end all too quickly -- yet the slim book is exactly the right length for the story Ammaniti wanted to tell. Ammaniti brings to bear an impressive combination of skill and heart in his creation of this short, sweet, moving novel.


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