No longer a niche market, audiobooks are attracting some outstanding narrations from big names these days. While some listeners find familiar voices distracting, it is hard to find fault when a well-cast celebrity submerses themselves in a text, giving us a performance better than the movie and the book.
Marisa Tomei’s powerful narration of Elena Ferrante’s highly anticipated new novel “The Lying Life of Adults” is a perfect example. Twelve-year-old Giovanna emerges from her sheltered, carefree childhood with a shock, overhearing her father likening her to his sister Vittoria, a woman so scandalous she has been literally erased from the family. Her curiosity piqued, the hurt, rebellious Giovanna descends to Naples’ slums to get to know this aunt, whose brash, unapologetic passions seem to mirror her own inner turmoil.
Ferrante depicts the warring emotions of her characters without condescension, and the vulnerable intensity of Tomei’s reading fulfills the passionate immediacy of Ferrante’s prose. In her audiobook debut, Tomei inhabits the heroine’s insecurities and conflicted feelings, recalling to us the raw ache of adolescence. Tomei’s cadenced delivery demonstrates how musicality and rhythm can convey the flavor of other languages more effectively than distracting accents. True to the dignity of Ferrante’s characters, Tomei leaves everything on the field in this irresistible, heart-rending performance.
In many ways, André Aciman’s bestselling 2006 debut novel “Call Me by Your Name” picks up where Ferrante leaves off, delving into the first forbidden summer romance of young Elio with his professor father Sami’s handsome American grad student Oliver, portrayed in the film version by the statuesque Armie Hammer, who jumps into narrator Elio’s skin for the audiobook. Hammer’s easy, resonant baritone curiously mixes the desirer and the desired, while doing justice to the erudition and elegance of Aciman’s prose. Hammer conveys the romance, heartbreak and regret while manifesting the book’s sheer sexiness through his masculine timbre.
Carlo Rovelli’s “The Order of Time” is the theoretical physicist’s most demanding book, delving into the shifting and often paradoxical nature of time as variously understood by Aristotle, Newton, Einstein and the author. Holding the reins for the audiobook adaptation: Benedict Cumberbatch. Where the actor’s rapid-fire delivery as Sherlock Holmes is designed to dazzle and confound, here he gracefully guides us along through the pleasures of cogitation toward seemingly airless hypothetical heights, savoring passages from Horace, Shakespeare and Rilke along the way. The book is both short enough and difficult enough to beg a second listen, and Cumberbatch’s vivid fluency makes that seem like a treat.
Diane Keaton is brilliantly cast as the discerning, bemused voice of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion’s landmark 1968 collection of essays encapsulating 1960s California. The wry patina of Keaton’s own storied Los Angeles life lends a certain seen-it-all credence to the author’s keen perceptions. And what voice could be better suited to read “The Dharma Bums,” Jack Kerouac’s freewheeling 1958 excursion through the West Coast scene, than the enthusiastic, leathery, down-to-earth growl of Ethan Hawke? Hawke grounds Kerouac’s deceptively effortless stream-of-consciousness flights with vivid grit and a contagious sense of wonder, grasping and conveying what made the Beats so beatific.