Nicky Pellegrino’s latest best-seller resonates in these pandemic times, writes reviewer Charity Norman
We’re living in pandemic days, and Nicky Pellegrino’s latest was written long before anyone had heard of Covid-19 – yet it resonates in these uncertain times, since it’s about a group of people who live with a constant, inescapable awareness of their own mortality.
Pellegrino has carved a deservedly best-selling niche with her warm, generous tales of Italy. This, her twelfth, is something of a departure. Tiny Pieces of Us is grittier and more emotional than much of her work. Pellegrino tackles a tricky, emotive subject. The story opens with 16-year-old Jamie, a promising young man on the threshold of life, meeting with a fatal accident as he cycles home from school. His end brings new beginnings, thanks to the decision made by his anguished mother, Grace, to allow his organs to be donated.
Vivi Palmer is a twentysomething journalist, unfulfilled by her job with a London-based tabloid. She’s sleeping with her boss, the latest in a succession of unsuitable boyfriends (I imagined a young Hugh Grant, manipulative charm and roguish smile). Vivi lives carefully, avoiding risks – physical or emotional – because the heart beating in her chest isn’t her own. She owes her life to the death of a person whose name she has never known. Until now.
Everything changes when a news article brings Vivi and Grace together. Grace has a request: that Vivi will help her to track down all the other recipients of her son’s organs – a handful of strangers, each of whom carries a tiny piece of Jamie.
It’s an intriguing premise handled with compassion, sensitivity and what must have been extensive research into the challenges of life as a transplant recipient. Fiona, the elegant gardener who received Jamie’s lungs, describes the overwhelming joy of first “breathing in the sweet air, filling up with it,” but these second chances are fragile. The recipients must take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of their lives – constantly vigilant, careful about every aspect of their lifestyles. Vivi lies in bed at night, comforted by the steady beat of Jamie’s heart while knowing that one day her body may reject it. “There is a fight going on,” Fiona reminds us, “and the body always wins.”
There are emotional landmines too. When first meeting Vivi, Grace reveals that she’s brought along a stethoscope, and asks to listen to her son’s heart. Vivi agrees – “How could I say no?” – so off they go to a cubicle in a McDonald’s bathroom. It’s a striking, unsettling moment of awkward intimacy between two strangers, and sets the scene for Grace’s complicated relationship with the recipients. She wonders whether they “deserve the miracle they got, that Jamie’s life wasn’t wasted.” This question pervades the story. How will they use the gift they’ve been given, and should they feel a burden of obligation?
“It’s why I do this,” explains Tommy, a kidney recipient who runs marathons. “I push myself … because I can and that boy can’t any more.” As reader, I found myself tasting a little of their survivor’s guilt: immersed in their new friendships, in the bitter-sweetness of existence, all owed to the hopeful young man I’d met in the first chapter.
There’s plenty of warmth and humour to leaven these darker themes. Part of the action is set in Italy, at Villa Rosa, a glorious spot which loyal readers will revisit with whoops of pleasure. The narrative takes on a change of tone among evocations of exquisite landscape, friendship, family, cooking and eating together. You might need your hanky for the ending, but it’s life-affirming too.
In her acknowledgments Nicky Pellegrino thanks two friends, “because friendship is everything, and everyone needs friends like them.” The celebration of human connection lies at the heart of this absorbing story. “It felt good to be alive,” muses Vivi, while drifting on her kayak in the company of a good man. Death, like taxes, is unavoidable – but first, there’s life.
Tiny Pieces of Us by Nicky Pellegrino (Hachette, $34.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.
*ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*