Books: A Number in the Air

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THE SECRET (249 pp.)— -Alba de Céspedes—Simon & Schusfer ($3.50).

For Valeria Cossati, the turning point came, she thought, when her husband jokingly began calling her Mamma. Somehow it made her feel that she had lost her youth and was also beginning to lose her identity.

The middle-aged but still attractive heroine of this excellent novel by the wife of an Italian diplomat. "Mamma" Cossati is an intimidated, tradition-bound Roman housewife. She is intent on one thing: to maintain a perfect reputation for hard work and for saintly devotion to her family and her gentle husband, an underpaid bank official. Yet her problems cannot be dismissed as resulting merely from poverty and Old World attitudes about a woman's place. When she dreams guiltily of "leaving the dishes in the sink, the laundry unwashed, the beds unmade." or when she tries on a new lace slip for her husband and he says, "It's pretty; how much was it?" a great many modern American woman readers will recognize themselves in Valeria.

Hardly aware of it herself, she is deeply resentful of her submissive role. It is not until she begins to keep a secret diary that resentment turns to revolt, for as Valeria looks at herself, she also begins to see others. She discovers her husband's failure as man and lover, her son's weakness. She secretly despises her son's pretty and docile fiancee, is candid enough to guess that she is actually jealous of her independent daughter. As life at home becomes unbearable, Valeria's office job begins to seem like a kindly refuge. And when her rich and thoughtful boss makes the inevitable proposition, her disillusionment becomes his strongest ally.

Author de Cespedes attacks neither motherhood nor the status of the housewife; she only asks that Mamma or Mom stand on her dignity and true worth, and above all, that she reject the martyr pose. The Secret expresses poignantly the mood of wanting "to start living afresh" and the discovery that it is too late. One day Valeria has an impulse to telephone her boss from home and say, "Let's go out." But " 'I'm mad.' I murmured, shaking my head. 'Quite mad,' I repeated, forming his number in the air, without dialing. 'I have masses of ironing to do.' "