"The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can't understand." With that simple and unnerving sentence on the second page of this astonishingly economic novel, author Elena Ferrante is giving readers fair warning: brace yourselves, painful, discomforting truths are about to be revealed in this book about daughters and mothers and the women struggling to be both.
The revelations of Leda, a middle-aged Neapolitan-born divorced mother of two and professor of English literature, are all the more unsettling for the sun-drenched idyllic setting—an Italian coastal town—in which her shadowy secrets are revealed. This is not the bel paese of modern marketing mythology, the one imagined by innumerable vacationers and perpetuated as some paradiso-on-earth in everything from glossy travel magazines to books/films like Under the Tuscan Sun, a never-neverland where the inhabitants are full of life, family and amore. Like her compatriot, the late Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who, in his novels and short fiction, never hesitated to reveal the moral shortcomings of the inhabitants of his native island or Italian society at large that so willingly accepts the political corruption that is fatte in Italia (made In Italy) as much as Gucci, Maserati and a good Barolo, Ferrante pulls back the layers of escapist fantasy and exposes all those disturbing shadows hiding underneath that Mediterranean sun.
With her grown daughters now living in Canada with her ex-husband, Leda is finally alone and free to dedicate herself to her work. But instead of the expected loneliness, she feels oddly secure. She escapes Florence, where she lives, and heads for a small coastal town for an extended summer holiday of books, sun and the sea. What could be more peaceful?
But on the beach she soon encounters an extended Neapolitan family, loud, boisterous, speaking the dialect of her youth, a "tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings." It is also the native tongue of the tribal family that she escaped from. She recalls her father and uncles and how "every question sounded on their lips like an order barely disguised…if necessary they could be vulgarly insulting and violent." At eighteen, she had gone to Florence to study and never looked back "into the black well I came from." From adolescence onward, she aspired to "a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective." She is both repelled and entranced by the family and acknowledges that despite all the distance she has put between herself and the city of her origin, she could slip right back into the emotional terrain the Neapolitans inhabit.
In the beginning, Leda merely observes Nina, a young mother, and her daughter Elena and the beloved doll that is the object of the child's affection. Over the course of a few days, their lives become intertwined. When Elena goes missing, Leda finds her. Leda remembers how she herself was lost as a child and her panic when one of her own daughters was lost. But when Nani, Elena's doll, goes missing the novel reaches its emotional epicenter. Leda, it turns out in a moment redolent with psychological implications, has taken it.
The taking of the doll isn't just a momentary lapse of judgment but one that reverberates with dangerous possibilities. Nina's husband, who bears a large scar across his stomach, and his brusque family are described by Gino, who happens to be Nina's lover, in a seemingly innocuous phrase: "They're bad people." The coded language implies that the family is Camorra, or the Naples equivalent of Sicily's Mafia; they are, in other words, the kind of people who are short on forgiveness and long on memory, especially when it comes to slights and theft.
The doll is an emotional Rosetta stone, unleashing a flood of memories from Leda's own unhappy childhood, including her mother's endless threats to leave and her unhappy adulthood when, as a young mother herself, she sacrificed her own dreams in order to raise a family. She recounts to Nina how she finally followed through on her mother's empty threats and walked out on her own daughters. "I abandoned them when the older was six and the younger four," she says as if she was recounting a weather report.
This is Ferrante's devastating power as a novelist: she navigates the emotional minefields and unsparingly tallies the cycle of psychological damage among multiple generations of women in Leda's family in straightforward, almost curt language (credit must also be given to translator Ann Goldstein's subtle rendering); the author uses blunt words that slice like a rapier to describe Leda's scars. "Everything in those years seemed to me without remedy, I myself was without remedy," she recounts. And: "How many damaged, lost things did I have behind me, and yet present, now…"
Ultimately, the doll is returned, but it is too late for forgiveness, Nina has none in her; just as it is too late for Leda to forgive her mother and family, and too late for her own daughters to forgive her trespasses. In the end, Ferrante reminds us that there is no escaping the damage that comes with familial love, intentional or not. Perhaps the best we can do is to acknowledge the damage that has been wrought, as bravely as Ferrante does in this mesmerizing novel.
Joseph V. Tirella is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Portfolio.com, Esquire and Vibe.