I’m posting an excerpt of the short story, ‘La Ragazza’ by Andrea Lee this morning. Lee is one of the writers I go back to again and again due to her marvelous penchant for detail. Her characterizations are brilliant. Lee is an exceptional raconteur though she is often accused of classism. However I find her story-telling enchanting. I’m never bored when I’m reading Lee. She is, as Phillip Roth famously said: ‘the real thing’.
The first time Orso sees the new maid, he thinks she is a living doll. Not in the dated American slang sense—with which he is familiar because he was once married to a woman from New England (that overeducated and thorny beauty would never have used the phrase, but somehow in her chilly Puritan environs he brushed against it and picked it up like a burr)—but in a literal sense: she resembles a doll. The maid’s name is Caterina Zupancic, and she is Romanian, like so many of the maids in Turin these days, the ones whom Orso hears his wife, Lili, and her friends discussing in minute detail, as women always discuss their domestic help. Each maid is invariably referred to not by name but as either la colf—short for collaboratrice familiare, or family helper—or la ragazza, the girl. This particular girl has a flat, almost perfectly round face. Her cheeks, slightly scarred by acne, have a puffy droop that suggests childish sullenness or a case of the mumps. Then there are black eyes that seem to be set flush with the surface of her skin, a conventional rosebud mouth, and, barely restrained with a plastic clip, an almost inhumanly abundant mass of black hair, thick and wiry, with a coarse gleam that makes it look synthetic. Like the most successful maids, she is not beautiful and not too young. If she is a doll—Orso amuses himself by thinking—she is a slightly battered one, dragged around by the legs, left out in the rain, undressed with the cruel energy of an excessively loving little mistress.
The interview takes place, irritatingly, in Orso’s study—irritatingly because he hates the way that Lili, wise in so many other matters, drags him into the endless hiring and firing of their foreign domestic workers. The girl is wearing a carefully pressed pair of jeans that delineate a sturdy, flat bottom; also a pair of worn ankle boots and a blouse of some cheap flowered material whose large collar suggests a convent uniform. Her documents—reassuringly in order—say that she is thirty-two, but she stands in front of Orso’s desk with her spine straight and her hands clasped behind her back like a pupil at a school recitation. With her eyes cast down, she tells him, in a high fluting voice, that she was trained as a nurse, and Lili nods approvingly in the background. Also standing and grinning in the background is Milan, the Romanian handyman who found Caterina for them when their previous maid quit. Milan, a wiry rascal with rings in both ears, is married but a notorious womanizer among the maids of the neighborhood, and he is staring wolfishly at Caterina. When the interview is over and the girl turns to go, Orso sees Milan slyly pinch her upper arm. Caterina flushes a dull red and moves away with a hopeless sort of slowness, like a penned animal, and Orso, who is a warmhearted, impulsive man, feels an unexpected flash of anger.
For the first three months or so, Lili is enthusiastic about the new maid, who is so much better than the string of disasters they’ve had over the past year, since Pernotta, the faithful Sardinian who’d been with them for eight years, decamped to marry a tobacconist from Bolzano. Since then, there have been officious Filipinas who dropped unfinished any task that overran union hours; a melancholy Peruvian who sobbed through the ironing; a thickly lipsticked Moldavian, brilliant at cooking, whom they discovered to be a kleptomaniac after she’d stolen two tea kettles; a tall, practical-looking Piedmontese whom they fired after the first dinner, when she served a roast chicken with the head and feet intact. Slapstick catastrophes that have almost convinced the small and efficient Lili that she’d be better off muddling through without a live-in servant.
But there’s the apartment to think of. Two elaborately panelled floors and a terrace at the top of an Art Nouveau house in the Crocetta district: huge, and as complicated and demanding as an elderly relative. And though Orso and Lili have no children—this is a second marriage for Lili, a third for Orso, and Orso’s grownup half-American daughters live, respectively, in Palo Alto and Tokyo—they entertain a lot. Orso’s job as a sourcing consultant to European manufacturers requires it. The younger son of a family of Padua intellectuals, Orso has many famous friends. Men love him for his generous, convivial nature, while women are drawn to the innocent, greedy look in his boyish blue eyes. Their dinner table has become one of the important salons of Turin, and their parties—two or three a week—are carefully planned to appear casual and relaxed, in a way that appeals to the professors, journalists, C.E.O.s, leftist politicians, and members of the European Parliament who meet at their house. The food may be simple—sometimes Piedmontese, sometimes peasant recipes from his and Lili’s home region in the Veneto, sometimes Chinese and Singaporean dishes, prepared in Lili’s quick and expert fashion—but the details have to be impeccable with such people. Lili finds in Caterina a true “family collaborator,” an intelligent but unpretentious woman who listens to directions, observes the way her employer wants things, and then swiftly anticipates her desires. A pearl.
The complete story is available on The New Yorker website here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/02/16/la-ragazza