Sometimes love requires strong actions. When we love someone, it is easy to mistake the respect we feel we should have towards the other person’s choices, with cowardice and fear. In the case of parental love, for instance, it is crucial to be able to distinguish between interfering and intervening. This is one of the themes present in Follow your Heart, an Italian novel that despite its astonishing commercial success – ithas been translated into eighteen languages and sold over sixteen million copies worldwide – is often dismissed as excessively sentimental and soppy. A more careful reading uncovers the true themes at its core: incapacity to deal with human emotions – often disguised as modesty – going hand in hand with familial histories of abuse within a patriarchal arrangement of relationships harmful to women as well as men.
An extensive article on the novel is included in the collective volume Love and the Politics of Intimacy (2023), an exploration of love in the 21st century. Incorporating academic writing and original creative work from scholars around the globe, the volume seeks inspiration for transforming and re-mapping the pathways of love.
Love Does Not Suit the Lazy
The novel tells the story of Olga, a grandmother who feels that her relationship to Marta, her granddaughter, has been recently infiltrated by sourness and misunderstandings. Sensing the nearness of her death, Olga recognises the urgency to communicate truthfully to her granddaughter. She therefore consigns to the pages of a diary the honest confession of her life.
While telling her story to Marta, Olga exposes a palpable absence of love in all her most significant relationships. Between herself and her husband, as well as between herself and her parents, communication was formal and insincere. Olga recalls her mother dying “unsatisfied and holding a grudge” after a marriage characterized by unkindness and spite. As Olga’s account reaches its highpoint, the reader discovers that at the centre of Olga’s pain is an immense sense of guilt for having caused – albeit involuntarily – the car accident in which her daughter died.
Wishing to leave behind an honest and coherent narrative of her life, for herself as well as for Marta, Olga recognizes, one by one, her faults and mistakes. First, she sees that behind her apparently progressive choice of respecting and not interfering with her daughter’s unhappiness was hidden a good amount of laziness and cowardice: “love doesn’t suit the lazy, sometimes it requires strong, precise actions. Do you see? I disguised my listless cowardice as noble sentiments about personal liberty” (Tamaro, 1994, p. 63-64).
Olga’s Lack of Courage
Ultimately, Olga blames her lack of courage and self-knowledge for her incapacity to really love her daughter, for not having understood the difference between interfering and intervening, and for having lived her life in fear: “most of my life has been like this, I didn’t swim, I floundered. With uncertain, confused movements, without elegance or joy, I have barely managed to keep myself afloat” (Tamaro, 1994, p.79).
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that it does not shy away from describing the strong connection between emotional incompetence, its damaging and far-reaching power, and cruelty, one of its most frequent outcomes. Olga, who was a young woman in post-fascist Italy, connects her bitterness to the condition of women in general, vividly describing a world in which men could access opportunities of self-realization: “men had their professions, their politics, their wars, they had outlets for their energy. Women, to the contrary, for countless generations have been confined to the bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom; we have taken millions of steps, millions of gestures, each one encumbered by the same rancour and the same dissatisfaction” (Tamaro, 1994, 49-50).
The Courage of Reading without Prejudice
While reading the story of Olga, I thought that it could be of particular interest to the younger generations, more and more accustomed, when discussing familial or romantic relationships, to a language that highlights consent, self-affirmation, the transparency of feelings, as if these perspectives had always been widely shared and available to everyone. To the contrary, private histories have always been, and still are, fraught with conflicts, abuse, and ineptitude in dealing with human emotions. As such, narratives that investigate these aspects should be read without prejudice in order to better understand the complex and contradictory history of our relationships.