The middle story in this compassionate collection follows disparate folk loosely linked by a set of steps. Among them, there’s the mother who climbs them first thing in the morning, the girl who descends them at two in the afternoon and the screenwriter who lives at the foot of them, and who stays home nearly all day. Together, these men, women and children represent a cross section of society. One comes from “a faraway tropical city;” another compares the grubby sight of graffiti to hearing “foreigners talking on the street.” Yet, here they are, existing side by side in a Roman neighborhood, going about their ordinary daily routines.
Which is what the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri does so well: pays attention to the everyday. She did it in Whereabouts, a slim tale of a single soul moving thoughtfully about her city, and she does it again in Roman Stories. Written originally in Italian, each story circles around ideas of identity, belonging and displacement, as well as events big and small: lunch at a simple trattoria; a summer holiday; the funeral of a good friend; a birthday party that used to take place every year with a crowd who “knew each other either too well or not at all.”
The interactions between that crowd and others both native and new to the city are deftly sketched. A sense of inner and outer restlessness courses through the lot of them, from the couple dizzied by the death of their young son to the professor troubled by the sense that she has “no personal link to the history she studies.” Sometimes all it takes to tip the balance is a small gesture. One woman is disoriented by the way a man:
propped his chin in a little cup formed by his hand, and by the expressive fingers of that same hand that would move around all the while as if they were individual letters of a private sign language, grazing his throat, his mouth, ending up now and then under one of the lenses of his glasses.
Because of the overlap between the stories, at times there’s a sense of crossing old terrain — but perhaps that’s the point. Like Rome itself, these tales are both familiar and strange. One girl, stuck in the countryside, watching urban dwellers come and go, considers the way a woman “looks at all the things I look at every day… I wonder what else she sees in them.” Back in the city, along the streets and in the piazzas, up and down the steps, Lahiri gives us a glimpse.