One-Minute Book Reviews

March 8, 2007

Guiseppe Pontiggia’s Great Novel About Fatherhood, ‘Born Twice’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

Born Twice. By Giuseppe Pontiggia. Translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky. Vintage, 192 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

When was the last time you read a great novel about fatherhood? I don’t mean a book about a man who has children who are incidental to the plot or a Victorian patriarch worried about dynastic succession. I mean one about a man who has a serious emotional involvement in the joy and pain of raising a child in the modern world.

Born Twice is perhaps the best novel of the past decade about the ordinary cruelties inflicted on children with disabilities – in this case, as observed by a father whose son, Paolo, suffered brain damage during a breech birth. This not the kind of sentimental book that critics call “heartwarming” – it is novel about physical and emotional struggle, leavened with a dry wit and a sense of life’s fragile victories. But is nonetheless a love story about one man’s conflicted responses the injustices faced by his son from infancy to young adulthood — taunts, stares, condescension, indifference, bureaucratic obstinacy.

Guiseppe Pontiggia won Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize, for Born Twice, and its prose has a lyrical stoicism reminiscent of that of the books his late countrywoman, Natalia Ginzburg. More’s the pity that he died, in 2003, just as his work was beginning to find an American audience.

Best Line: A doctor tells Paolo’s father: “These children are born twice. They have to learn to get by in a world that their first birth made difficult for them. Their second birth depends on you, on what you can give them. Because they are born twice, their journey through life is a far more agonizing one than most. Yet ultimately their rebirth will be yours too.”

Worst Line: None.

Recommended … without reservations. This novel raises many questions with rich potential for reading groups, including men’s book clubs. See the reading group guide to Born Twice in the March 8 post below this one for some of them.

Caveat lector: This review does not attempt to evaluate the accuracy of Oonagh Stransky’s traslation.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover) and October 2003 (Vintage paperback).


© 2007 Janice Harayda. All Rights Reserved.


  1. The born twice concept aptly describes these children; I saw this when I worked with them at a state mental health center for children with developmental disabilities. Thanks for posting this review: I was unaware of the book.

    Comment by knightofswords — March 9, 2007 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  2. “leavened” with a dry wit…

    I love it — a Jamesian verb if there ever was one.

    Comment by heehler — March 9, 2007 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

  3. Knight of Swords: Thanks for getting why “Born Twice” matters. This novel is so worthy of redisovery. The tragedy of its publication was that this was Pontiggia’s first novel published in the U.S., and he died the year it came out in paperback here. So Pontiggia didn’t have much, if any opportunity, to do things like interviews with NPR and The New York Times that can be so much help to a literary novel. It’s tough to find the most basic information about him on the Web. I had to go to a site written entirely in Italian just to get his dates of birth and death.

    Heehler: Maybe it’s because I used to live on Beacon Hill, a block or two away from HJ’s home on Mount Vernon Street? (We were at opposite ends of Louisburg Square …)

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 9, 2007 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

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