“We are a republic founded on adultery,” the Italian author Guia Soncini writes in her book, I Mariti delle Altre (“Other Women’s Husbands”), where she compares mistresses to polygamous wives and considers whether Italian adultery could be more ethical than America’s “carefree divorces.” The book is equal parts memoir and cultural study, drawing on Soncini’s childhood memories of her father’s mistress; her life as an unmarried 41-year-old; and history and the arts. Soncini, who also writes for La Repubblica and Gioia!, explained her preferences for married men and Starbucks coffee to New York sex columnist Maureen O’Connor, as part of the Italy in 30 Days’ Exchange Rates conversation series.
Maureen O’Connor: Tell me about your book, I Mariti delle Altre.
Guia Soncini: The book starts and ends with the story of my father, but the project started because my editor had a habit of sleeping with married men. She’s from Bologna, like me, so maybe we have a pattern. Anyway, she was having an affair with this man who, every time they had sex, would show her his wedding photos after they fucked.
I don’t know; it’s a very strange perversion. Anyway, my father’s story is that he had a lover for 15 years. He was a doctor, his lover was his nurse — it’s all very stereotypical. When I was 18 or 19, my mother became pissed and said, "You have to make up your mind." And he said, "I pick her." So he left home and rented an apartment. Then he went to this woman’s home and said, "I’m here! I left my wife!" And she said, "What do you want from me? I don’t want you. I was just screwing you. I have a boyfriend."
Oh my god. It’s like that quote from your book: “The best adulterous affairs begin with a commitment: 'Promise me that your wife won't kick you out.'”
And my father was [dismayed hand gestures], I don’t have a word to describe. She destroyed him! He crumbled to pieces. And of course my mother took him back. My mother was born in 1941, in the smallest village in the center of Italy. So even though she was educated, lived in a city, and wasn’t that old, she couldn’t be the abandoned wife. Because in the world she grew up in, the only thing worse than being a spinster is being an abandoned wife.
Like that Elena Ferrante book, The Days of Abandonment.
Yes, but I think now we have evolved from that model. There’s a slang word in Bologna for an unpleasant person: sgodevole. One day my mother was quarreling with my father and said, "My friends have husbands who cheat on them, and to be forgiven, they become the best husbands ever! You go out and screw someone else, but you’re still sgodevole." She was offended not by the lover but the fact that he still was not a good husband.
When I was growing up, my mother also had friends who were the other woman. They had apartments that they waited for their men in. You know the Mitterrand thing from France, where he had a daughter from a sort of parallel marriage? These women had that arrangement, and many famous Italians have, too. In my book, I wrote about the director Vittorio De Sica, whose son wrote the father's adultery in his memoir; Marcello Mastroianni, who never divorced his wife despite having a daughter with Catherine Deneuve and a 22-year relationship with Anna Maria Tatò; and Eugenio Scalfari, who founded and edited the newspaper I write for, La Repubblica, wrote about his double ménage in his autobiography. It's not cheating so much as polygamy that the law doesn’t recognize. At a certain point in the book, I ask, “Why do we think the cheater is the winner and the woman is the victim?” There is a movie, L’immorale, in which Ugo Tognazzi is a musician in an orchestra and has the double regime with two wives. He has two Christmas trees. Two birthdays. Then he meets and falls in love with a third woman, makes a family with her, grows more and more tired, and in the end he dies of exhaustion!
Then there’s Roberto Rossellini, whose wife Marcella de Marchis cared so much for him that, since Italy had no divorce law when he fell in love with Ingrid Bergman, she took the Austrian citizenship to divorce him and allow him to remarry. The fabulous detail is that when, decades later, she wrote an autobiography, she titled it Un Matrimonio Riuscito, “A Successful Marriage.”
Even if adultery can be part of a “successful marriage,” it still sounds like it causes a lot of unhappiness.
Yes, but you don’t have “sliding doors” to verify the alternative: How unhappy would these people be in a two-person relationship? When Lady Diana told that BBC interviewer that her marriage felt too crowded because there were three of them, what she missed is that, if it were four, it would have been perfect. Four is the perfect number in marriage.
You also said the culture of adultery has evolved. What’s different?
First of all, women are the real cheaters now. I think we’ve always cheated as much as men, but if you look at older Italian movies, the cheating woman had to be punished. She always died. Dramma della Gelosia is a movie from 1970. It’s the story of a woman who had a relationship with two men who are best friends. In the end they want to kill each other, but by mistake they kill her. And it’s a comedy! In 1990, there is a movie called Turné with an almost identical story. Twenty years apart, the two actresses have the same line: "I love you both, but il fatto è che voi due, insieme, fate un uomo perfetto" — “the thing is, you two add up to a perfect man.” So now a woman can say that no one man is enough, and she doesn’t have to die. I think this is great progress!
We are a country where the first divorce law was made in the mid-'70s, and the Catholic political party that campaigned against divorce said this fabulous thing, it was, “If you don’t stop this divorce law, voters, all your husbands will run away with the maid!” We just now have a proposal to make divorce quicker. When it came out in the summer, everybody was screaming, “Six months?! If you can get divorced in six months, marriages will crumble!”
So the idea is that your husband will still sleep with the maid, but at least he won’t leave you.
But why do you want that husband to stay?
I’ve never been married, but I’ve been working for three years on this topic, and from what I gather, marriage is more about what you do for your life: who you have a family with, raise children with, have career benefits. We’ve been reading for 20 years that Hillary and Bill are married as a business partnership, and I find that perfectly normal. When I read the gossip on Beyoncé and Jay Z, I read the description of a normal marriage. If you are married for a decade, it’s impossible not to cheat on each other. It means you are dead.
I take it you’ve had affairs yourself?
Well. [Laughs.] It’s always more difficult to talk about one’s own stories. I’ve had quite a normal life and relationships with engaged men, married men, single men. Single men are the worst.
You prefer married men because they don’t impinge on your freedom.
So if an American woman goes to Italy and wants to have a torrid affair, what should she do?
You don’t have to do anything! The men will come to you.
The best thing you can do is look uninterested. The night you receive the most advances is the night you look like you’re committed to somebody else. Because in Italy, you look desperate if you’re alone. We’re very basic in this. We are a culture where a single girl is still a spinster. We call them “single” to be modern because we saw Sex and the City. But Italians still think, She’s the one nobody wanted. You look interesting if you’re taken, so the best thing you can do is pretend. I must confess, I have had imaginary boyfriends to reassure lovers that I wasn’t at home waiting for them. But really, you want to come to Italy to find romance?
Yes! I think Americans imagine Italian men to be very romantic.
Really? I always thought Italian men were perceived abroad as mama’s boys.
Perhaps I’m too much an ignorant American to know the correct stereotypes.
You are still thinking in Dolce Vita terms, that Italians are Marcello Mastroianni. But they are not. I was reading something your blog published about Italian architecture, where somebody said people in Rome live with their parents when they’re 30. And they definitely do! When I was in Rome at 20, I was the only one my age who was working and living alone.
If they live at home, where do they have sex?
This is a good question. I presume they have very liberal parents, and they can have sex in their home? If your 25-year-old son lives with you, you don’t think he will be a virgin until he’s 40, do you?
Maybe this is why Italian men need mistresses: Not enough sex when they were living with Mom.
You know, this is a very good interpretation. You should have told me before I wrote the book.
Do you ever come to New York?
Every October for my birthday, I come to celebrate with friends. It’s a stupid tradition; I come for my birthday and for the eggnog from Starbucks, which I love.
Wait, you love Starbucks?
We have no Starbucks here, and it is terrible. Please do something. Write it in your magazine. We must have Starbucks!
An Italian woman who loves married men and Starbucks. Which will upset people more?
I see readers’ brains exploding.
This article has been edited and condensed.