Fourteen-and-a half-year-old Margherita, "a girl past her sell-by date," shares the magical, romantic world of the Dust Girl, a ghost who defends the Great Meadow behind Margherita's house in the quiet Italian countryside whenever it is threatened by development. Despite her belief in ghosts and magical spirits, however, Margherita, the speaker of this wildly imaginative and satiric novel, maintains a sophisticated and critical point of view as she relates the changes which take place in her neighborhood and within her own family when new neighbors erect a large, black cube-house, beside their own (old) house.
The ironically-named Del Bene family, who built the Cube ("like Scrooge McDuck's money vault"), quickly begins to absorb Margherita's parents and the rest of the neighborhood within their aggressively materialistic orbit. Soon the meadow is sprayed to kill mosquitoes, a gypsy encampment is "encouraged" to depart, and abandoned cars are removed. The Del Benes appreciate and employ the subtle briberies needed to bend each person to their will, and Margherita begins to think they have supernatural powers, as they become increasingly powerful in the lives of Margherita's family. When they begin to encroach upon the Great Meadow, however, the ghostly Dust Girl plots an unforgettable revenge. The conflicts develop more dramatically, and a dark, bang-up conclusion results.
Margherita's spot-on, mordant observations about her world are leavened by her hilariously unique images, coined words, puns, and word play, which keep the novel from becoming didactic. She describes her mother as looking like a "used tea bag." She notes that during a kiss seen on the new giant-screen TV, "the dueling tongues look like a pair of dueling meatloaves." Margherita's father has dealt with his growing bald spot by "recruiting about two thousand hairs that used to live near his left ear and force-marched them over to...the right hemisphere."
The first of Italian author Stefano Benni's novels to be translated into English, Margherita Dolce Vita deals with important social and environmental issues--the destruction of forests and natural habitats, consumerism, the growth of cults, the power of advertising, and the ostracism of "outsiders"--but his use of magic realism keeps the tone light--at least until the conclusion. The author concentrates on fast-paced story-telling, rather than moralizing, creating characters who themselves are either story-tellers or story-lovers. Fun to read, the narrative offers new ways of thinking about contemporary problems without becoming ponderous. While some readers may find the observations and satire a bit obvious, many others will be so captivated by Margherita that they will empathize with her dark assessment of life: "The fairy-tale has gone all wrong: the killers have become masters of the earth." n Mary Whipple