When the MeToo movement began, many women I know were unsurprised at the deluge of stories that seemed to confirm that nearly all of us have experienced some kind of sexual harassment, assault, or rape. Far more discomfiting was the personal discovery that began to unfurl, the sense that things that had happened to us in the past—things we did not report, that we accepted as a matter of course—were, in fact, assault or rape. Italian writer Veronica Raimo’s new novel The Girl at the Door takes this revelation as its starting point.
When the novel opens, a nameless pregnant woman is living with her boyfriend, a college professor, on an idyllic island called Miden. They haven’t been together long, but have already settled into a peaceful domestic life until a girl arrives at their home and tells the woman that she was raped by the professor two years earlier. Did she report it? the woman asks. “No. I couldn’t,” says the girl. “Why not?” she presses. “Because I didn’t know then,” says the girl. “Now I know.”
The Girl at the Door—Raimo’s first novel to be translated into English—was called “the first post-Weinstein novel” by Vanity Fair Italy when it was published in the country in 2018. The distinction is significant, especially in Italy where antipathy toward MeToo has been especially strong. But this book makes no proclamations and will frustrate readers with a one-dimensional view of the post-Weinstein era. It shifts between the viewpoint of the accused and his girlfriend, never settling on one definitive truth—and the victim has little to say.
Both of the book’s two narrators are foreigners who defected from their own country (presumably a version of Italy, judging by the stated longing for spaghetti and hazelnut gelato) after a financial disaster referred to as the Crash. They were unwilling to “spend the rest of our lives getting wasted on cannabis and carbohydrates” in a country they could no longer afford. The professor moved to Miden, and met his current girlfriend while she was on vacation there. “He knew I had nothing to lose, because I had almost nothing,” she says. “Or at least that’s what I liked to think back then. I liked reciting the part.”
In contrast to their crisis-ridden homeland, Miden is a kind of hipster utopia—I pictured an Instagrammed Iceland. The landscape is “photogenic” and there are no poor people. Clogs made from local materials have become a coveted cult item beyond the island. A badminton-style national sport “born as a parody” is played with irony. But for all its strategically wholesome lightheartedness, life in Miden is painfully intentional. The country is “at the top of all the rankings. First place for: Quality of life. Trust in the future. Social equality. Human rights. Professional satisfaction. Women’s freedom.” It is tempting while reading The Girl at the Door to draw a neat temporal parallel to MeToo: the country the professor and his girlfriend have left behind represents the past, and the hip, heavily policed “utopia” of Miden stands in for an ultra-woke present, where a commitment to parsing nuance can be so earnest as to appear farcical.
With its curtailed and surveilled forms of entertainment and joy, Miden also sounds a bit like a tech behemoth. There is a dress code for inhabitants and rules about noise. The residents are divided into commissions (the pregnant woman and the professor belong to the Organic Pesticides Commission) which see to life in the small nation. And when it comes to legislating personal behavior, Miden is particularly serious. According to the professor, part of what initially drew him was that “Everyone was very wary about ‘blurring lines of relationship.’”
This clarity of purpose, the pursuit of the “Miden Dream,” worked for the professor for a time, but teaching philosophy at an art academy brought him into daily contact with fetching young women—it was “statistically almost impossible not to” sleep with one of them, he says—and it wasn’t long before he began an affair with the student that was actually a crime (“TRAUMA No. 215”) or would become one. As it is investigated by the Commission, the novel moves back and forth between the perspective of the pregnant woman and the professor, in short sections of typically no more than a few pages and marked “Him” and “Her.” It’s like an engaging sci-fi riff on the TV show The Affair, showing how differently two people can remember the same circumstances.
But this is not a typical he said, she said. The revelation of violence may be the starting point of the novel, but the reader is not privy to the thoughts of the girl who was victimized. Rather, her understanding of her own experience is refracted through the two principal characters, as well as the bureaucratic machinery of Miden. The reader sees some of the questionnaires filled out by people who know the professor, with questions like “Have you ever noticed any sexist attitudes on the part of the professor?” (The answer: “I got the impression that politically incorrect humor is still fashionable in his country.”) The effect of these forays is like a court proceeding, where corporeal reality can feel warped and diluted by the detached, official language of the law.
The pregnant woman has a flat affect, a cynicism borne of traveling from a hopeless place to one bent on producing and protecting hope. As she retreats into music and shopping, the reader is treated to her darkly amusing observations about Miden, where she feels inescapably alien, especially as news of the inquest spreads. She obsesses over “the girl who entered the house,” envying her, and even admiring her ass when she sees her jogging along the shore one afternoon. Her boyfriend senses “her gaze on me like that of a vulture on a carcass.” At night he feels her staring at him, and worries that she is controlling him while he sleeps, as “her insomnia, once pathological, had now become almost ideological.” As her world becomes even more peculiar and foreign in light of the allegations against the father of her unborn child, her narration grows bleaker and more urgent, and the book assumes the quality of a thriller, the plot like a heavy rain cloud about to burst. How can she plan for the future when “the future has become a kind of blackmail?” Should she try to move past it all and accept her boyfriend’s affection? “I no longer knew what I should forget,” she says.
The novel, more so than any other genre, makes possible the kind of open-ended inquiry the moment calls for—into murky ethical terrain, into pain, shame, uncertainty, and doubt. In an interview with the New Yorker, writer Mary Gaitskill explained her choice to respond to this moment through fiction, saying “The essay form is best for making an argument that is more or less rational, and my feelings on the subject are too complicated and contradictory for that.” Elsewhere, too, it has been argued that books like Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew or Anna Burns’s Milkman illuminate the long and complicated aftermath of sexual harassment and assault. Parul Sehgal, writing about the recent crop of MeToo novels in the New York Times, said that in fiction, writers can unspool their own complex thinking through characters who are more than simply victims and perpetrators: “They are stories about inconsistencies and incoherence, stories that thicken the mysteries of memory and volition.”
Raimo’s novel is thick with mystery, but its parodic depiction of the impact of a rape allegation on a man’s life does invite comparisons with the news. Men who’ve expressed dismay over losing their power and influence are echoed in the professor’s aloofness and his indignation. In many ways, The Girl at the Door does literalize the MeToo boogeyman, the idea of a man “losing everything” after an allegation of rape. If the professor is named a Perpetrator, he will be cast not only out of his job but out of his country. (Imagine how John Hockenberry would deal with that.)
But a tidy mapping of this novel onto our nightmarish real world would do the book a disservice. Raimo, a deft chronicler of 21st-century miseries and a mature writer of lush, challenging sentences (even in this translation, which can feel clunky at times) wrestles with ambiguity for its own sake. The professor-perpetrator is drawn as a somewhat cartoonish chauvinist, but he is merely a foil for the pregnant woman, whose entwined ambivalences churn and seethe, and are by turns relatable, depressing, and bizarre.
The pregnant woman reveals that though she wished she’d found the allegation surprising, as she read through his case, “it didn’t seem like I was unearthing anything new about my boyfriend.” In a slightly meandering but ultimately satisfying surprise ending, Raimo casts aside ambiguity in favor of decisiveness. As at the end of any pregnancy (or any relationship), the woman finds herself reassured by “imagining other versions of myself,” and in the final pages, she brings one of them into being, rearranging and transforming the triangulated drama at the center of the story in the process. It’s a swift and delightful move that shows that in the end, this is not a novel about a devastating discovery. It’s a profoundly feminist tale about how to grapple with what we already know.
Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor living in Oakland. Her first book, Good Morning Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love, will be published by Crown in 2020. Find more of her work at ninarenataaron.com.