"In this follow-up to his bitingly insightful Ties, Premio Strega winner Starnone again explores complex familial relationships. A famous illustrator losing his predominance, 70-plus Daniele Mallarico winds up tending his preternaturally smart four-year-old grandson Mario when Mario's at-odds parents head to a mathematics conference. As a grandfather, Daniele is no sweetheart, often tetchy and dismissive of his young charge; Mario gives as good as he gets, and their dialog snaps, crackles, and pops deliciously. As Lahiri's introduction explains, the Italian title Scherzetto derives from the verb scherzare, to joke or play, and there's certainly playfulness here, but with an edge. The novel takes place during four cold November days at the Naples apartment Daniele inherited from his parents and where his daughter's family now lives; for Daniele, aching memories thus vie with present awareness of his waning powers and his concern for Mario—"I don't know if I'm scared for the child or scared of the child"—to create a palpable sense of urgency.
VERDICT A superb, sometimes unsettling intergenerational portrait hitting on basic truths."