book review: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman




Riverrun, 2018


“‘Because there’s no malice in Dad. He’s just that way. Like a huge ship, powering forward on his mission, and nobody can stop it.’

‘I see,’ Natalie notes, ‘that you’re still very engaged with Bear.’

He looks to the restaurant clock, irritated. Nobody likes to be understood without warning.”

My goodness, was The Italian Teacher ever my kind of book. I didn’t love it from the very first page – admittedly with a book about characters called Bear and Pinch I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to look past my hatred of quirky names long enough to actually pay attention to what I was reading – but once over that hurdle I settled into this easily and could not put it down.

The Italian Teacher follows the life of Charles ‘Pinch’ Bavinsky, the son of a renowned contemporary American artist, from infancy to adulthood. Pinch is a character who manages to be sympathetic, pitiable, and contemptible at all once, and it’s interesting to watch this transition; at what point do we stop feeling for this neglected child and start hating the spineless man he becomes? Rachman never really answers that question and I love this novel all the more for that; this book is all about the sins of the father and the complicated, lasting, ugly effect they have on the son. Pinch idolizes his father, who the reader easily recognizes as arrogant and misogynistic, but Pinch is consumed with Bear’s renown in the art world; likewise, he pities and fears becoming his luckless mother Natalie. To Pinch, Bear is success and Natalie is failure.

But the influence of Natalie can strongly be felt throughout the novel – in fact, she’s the only one who calls Pinch by his nickname rather than his real name, Charles, but still he is ‘Pinch’ in the third-person narration. His mother is his sole confidante and only friend throughout his childhood, but still he abandons her as soon as he is able, driven by his tunnel vision to live a life worthy of his father’s legacy. As he navigates life in his father’s shadow, there’s a wealth of commentary on art vs. the artist, and the cost of creative genius, that make this book a clever, entertaining, and deeply sad read.

Frankly I just loved everything about this. (Other than the characters’ names.) I loved the setting in the first section of 1950s Rome because I used to live in Italy, I loved Rachman’s clear knowledge of 20th century art because I studied the same thing in college and I cannot tell you how much I adored it, I loved that Pinch’s favorite artist was Caravaggio because my favorite artist is Caravaggio, I loved these characters’ complexity because I would choose depth over likability any day, I loved the sharp writing and wonderfully entertaining storytelling and the insight into the many themes that Rachman so expertly explored. This isn’t going to be for everyone – namely, I’d advise you to avoid if you can’t abide terrible, self-involved characters and you find discussions of art tedious – but this was just the perfect storm of everything I could want in a book, and I was so captivated by it.