Author: Elena Ferrante, Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Europa Editions, 2008

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When I was young I had two recurring dreams–nightmares, really. In the first, my younger brother, who slept in the bunk beneath me, was devoured by wolves on a nightly basis. By the time I mustered the courage to help him, all that remained was a pile of sparkly white bones, stripped clean of flesh. In the second and far less gruesome dream, I’d be at a fair or park or some place of that sort and a boy younger than me would somehow lose his grip on the string tethering a bright red balloon. The balloon would float away and the boy would cry. In the dream I knew he wasn’t crying for a balloon, but for that balloon, and I’d wake up not in sweats as after the wolf dream, but with a weird lonely sadness aching in my stomach. I not only felt bad for the child because of his loss, but angry with him for being so stupid as to lose the balloon. I need help, I know–sorry for getting so personal in this review. The wolf dream I only bring up so I don’t seem like such a sissy because of the balloon. But man, did that balloon dream bother me; I’d seriously cry sometimes. In The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante conjures up this same emotion. The book punched me through the gut with an icy fist and left behind in there a similar ball of frustrated and angry sadness bordering on despair.

The novel concerns Leda, a divorced, shrewish, embittered, middle-aged English lit professor on sabbatical from the university she teaches at in Florence to a beach resort on the Italian Riviera. At first she mostly spends her time people-watching with a judgmental eye, but soon takes particular interest in a slightly trashy Neapolitan family, namely a young mother, Nina, and her toddler daughter, Elena. When the child briefly goes missing amongst the sunbathers and the family searches for her in panic, Leda inexplicably and cruelly steals the child’s cherished doll from the sand.  From here she more or less intrudes, even if remaining distanced, on the family’s vacation.

It’s a despicable thing to do, to steal a favorite toy from a child (and way harder for me to deal with as an observer than a silly balloon mishap) and even Leda isn’t quite sure why she does it, or why she doesn’t return the doll. Most of the book’s meat traces back to this crucial moment. Ferrante uses it as a launching point to explore both Leda’s past–she walked out on her husband and two young daughters when she was an ambitious scholar about Nina’s age–and her present. The emotional focus of the narrative is upon Leda as she comes to terms with the acceptance of herself as utterly selfish human being. Leda shows almost no remorse for her manner of hurting others for her own self-interest. She acknowledges wrongs, but doesn’t feel regretful about committing them. This, as it would in a real human being, irked the heck out of me. However, the realization Leda achieves is not that she is an awful person–she knows as much–but that she is okay with it. There is certainly interesting and deep characterization at work here.

Ferrante’s writing (and Goldstein’s translation) is tight and masterful. She is one of the most celebrated authors in Italy and it is easy to understand why. As much as I really loathed Leda, her selfish ways, and her deriving contentment rather than misery from self-evaluation, Ferrante writes her so compellingly and with such complex emotion that the novel still left me impressed. As Leda tries to play with people as a child would a doll, the battle presented on the pages between maternal duty and ambitious self fulfillment is interesting indeed, even if it would probably resonate much more with a mother exiting her own middle age than it does with a reader like me. Hopefully when I reach that age, I won’t feel like popping kids’ balloons.

Other books you might enjoy: The Beggar Maid (Munro), Rosie Carp (NDiaye), Madame Bovary (Flaubert).