Review written by: Mai Bantog
Published by Atria Books
Imagine what you would do if your mother suddenly dies and leaves you with a rigid father whom you have nothing in common other than the love for football games.
Imagine having to grow up with a nanny who refuses to give you the mother figure that you have been longing for.
Imagine everyone looking down at you with pity because you no longer have a mother.
And imagine not knowing how your mother really died.
All these things tortured Massimo Gramellini in his autobiographical novel, Sweet Dreams. And if you psychoanalyze this novel ala-Carl Jung, you will in fact guess that the death of his mother when he was still a little boy left him broken as an adult—big time.
“All I was was a little grief-struck boy who couldn’t come to terms with the fact his mother had died.”
This single line from chapter seven is an apt summary of the whole novel. Judging from the theme, a lot of people would probably pass up on this book, thinking that they have read something like this before and that they would be in for some melodramatic roller coaster ride with the conflicted persona.
However, there is hardly any melodrama here as Gramellini likes to keep his dramatic novel very masculine—angst-ridden, troubled, and dark. I didn’t shed a tear while reading this novel, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t touch my heart, seeing how his aggression, apathy, and inner monster named Belfagor almost destroyed his whole life. After all, losing a mother can leave a child scarred for life, and that is exactly what this novel is about—the scars, and how he copes with “a greater pain when we’re loved no longer.”
Basic premise aside, let’s get down to business:
- What I liked most about this novel is the genuine and raw voice of the writer/persona. Gramellini is an established journalist in Italy, and it is without a doubt that he can write really well. But writing a novel requires a more distinctive voice, which he has, in my opinion, successfully rendered in this novel. His tone achieved the right balance of cynicism and utter pain and sadness, interspersed with some witty and snarky remarks here and there. I wouldn’t say it is an easy read, but only someone who has been in the throes of depression can really tell what is was like to be down there.
- Since this is an autobiographical novel, there is an inherent sincerity in the narrator of the novel. Everything that happened was believable, as it encapsulates the journey of the persona towards self-redemption. In real life, you don’t just decide to stand up and redeem yourself. You decide to do it, fall back down several times, and pick up the pieces once again. It’s a constant falling down and getting up movement. It is an inspirational novel, but it won’t give you words of wisdom right away. You have to go through the grueling journey of the persona towards self-redemption.
- There’s restraint and tension without resorting to melodrama. I felt the pain and frustration, but I didn’t cry.
- If you love psychology, you would have a grand time analyzing Massimo’s character.
- After the big reveal in the end, I felt that the ending became a bit preachy. Sure, this was supposed to be an inspirational novel, but almost all the quotable quotes had been jam packed in the last two chapters that I felt like the “moral lesson” was being shoved down the reader’s throat.
- Some transitions could be improved, especially when Massimo is thinking about his mom, and then would drift back into reality. Figuring out what’s real and what isn’t can be quite confusing.
- Being an autobiographical novel, it is natural for the narrator to assume a reflective tone as he tells the story of his past. But sometimes, I feel that some of the realizations of the narrator could be done away with, basically because they are spoon feeding the reader on what to think. As a reader, I would like very much to read between the lines and not have every action interpreted to me right away. But then again, it’s an autobiography, so there ought to be some reflection, right? There really is a certain challenge in critiquing an autobiographical work.
If you are not patient enough to go through the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Massimo’s life before he achieved his “sweet dreams”, then you might find reading this novel an arduous task. But if you would like to be treated to a tale about losing, loving, dreaming, and “achiev(ing) greatness in life ‘in spite of,’” then you’ll find nuggets of wisdom in Gramellini’s experiences.