“a cautionary tale… royalties go to the Harlem United Community AIDS Center…”
As a librarian, I must, and want to, protect the freedom to read. In this particular case, this impulse is intensified by the usefulness of such a cautionary tale (prophylactics were not mentioned in the beach scene) and by the fact that the book’s royalties go to the Harlem United Community AIDS Center (http://www.harlemunited.org/).
The book opens with an old man named Tsobanakos selling metallic accessories for prayer at a Greek market. A father selects a tin one for his daughter, eschewing the gold one because her medical condition is hopeless. Tsobanakos encounters Jean, the father, one more time and overhears him talking excitedly about his daughter Ninon’s wedding plans. He then imagines how their story plays out, and how it came to be.
To the Wedding can be disorienting, between moving backward and forward in time and juggling different points of view (Ninon’s, her fiancée Gino’s, and those of her parents and Gino’s father, Federico). Maybe it’s a fitting structure for conveying the lack of control that exists with incurable disease.
Berger doesn’t dwell on Ninon’s depressed reaction to her diagnosis. With rich images like love letter fragments floating in a toilet bowl and writing like, “All, all, all, all, all I had has been taken” (p. 79), embellishment is unnecessary.
The book focusses on random moments devoid of meaning and those infused with meaning as characters travel to Venice for the wedding. The local colour of Jean travelling by motorbike from Modena, Italy contrasts Zdena, Ninon’s mother, Zdena, arriving by bus and boat from Bratislava, Czech Republic.
The wedding is imagined as a future event, where the couple’s joy is interspersed with glimpses into an even farther future where Ninon is “slowly abandoned by life” (p. 89).
As much as Ninon is terribly unlucky, she is also very lucky. Her parents want desperately to comfort her. Her mother buys a whistle for Ninon to mimic the birds outside Zdena’s home, and her father almost steals an ancient necklace from a museum because he is drawn to its protective qualities. When he picks out perfume for her, the store clerk notes that her own father doesn’t love her like Jean loves Ninon. Then there’s Gino, who couldn’t be sweeter. Even though she doesn’t want to date him anymore, he convinces her to get in a boat and then steers her around a rough current to prove to her that they can face anything. She in turn, learns the very essence of emotionally focussed therapy that eludes so many people: one chapter begins and ends with the three words that are arguably more important than ‘I love you’: “Hold me tight.”
Image: reproduced in 2019 via fair use/dealing. Source: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/12357/to-the-wedding-by-john-berger/