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New York Times: "It’s the first time a novel ever made me get physical, and it was the first good mood I’d been in for weeks."

Date: Sep 26 2006

Return to Naples
In Elena Ferrante’s psychological mystery, a woman travels to her hometown to investigate her mother’s past.

Halfway through my second reading of Elena Ferrante’s “Troubling Love”—70 more pages to go in steamy Naples—I tore the book down the middle. It’s the first time a novel ever made me get physical, and it was the first good mood I’d been in for weeks. Then I gave a friend an unimpaired copy; she called the next morning: “Ferrante is fantastic. I hope you say something nice.” Ferrante will recognize my compliment since she’s clearly an idolizer of the unchecked urge, the gut response.

Her story probes a passionate mother-love, a balled-up closeness. Here’s how the daughter (and narrator), Delia, contemplates her mother’s purple, work-wounded finger: “For a long time, I’d wanted to lick it and suck it.” Finding that her dead mother’s suitor—a suave fetishist, a vampire pervert—has collected not only all the drowned woman’s underwear but a stained pair of her own, she turns giddy: “I felt like laughing.”

“Troubling Love” is a psychological mystery. Delia works the sort of writer-equivalent job  (she draws comic strips) that allows her an open schedule. Her mother, Amalia, embarked on a late-life romance, has turned up floating in the sea. Delia returns from Rome to Naples for the funeral, then pokes into Amalia’s suicide and her own childhood like a repelled detective. “I had forgotten nothing,” she explains, “but I didn’t want to remember.”

It’s a smelly book. If Nabokov writes from the eye and Hemmingway writes from the mouth and the stomach (you want to call room service and then find a gym), Ferrante is one of the few nose writers. And as Delia wanders through Naples, that sense keeps delivering bad news. A pub lavatory is “a tiny stinking room”; a city bus offers “a strong odor of ammonia”; even flowers release an “already putrid” aroma. (The reader itches for a shower. Delia takes one, at a hotel, and only finds that “disgusting short black hairs were scattered along the edge of the porcelain.”) Apartments “stink of mold and cobwebs.” A thirsty Delia opens the tap: “the water was dense and had a terrible smell.”

Visiting your hometown can often be a bummer, and Ferrante relentlessly compounds the bad luck. Delia puts on nice clothes and gets a menstrual stain (twice). Sex with a childhood friend proves spectacularly unsuccessful: “My compliance without participation began to disorient him…. I was afraid I would throw up.” The man finishes “without a moan, as if he were feeling no pleasure.” Her (one-armed) uncle greets Delia’s phone call with a “rosary of curses.” When she tracks down her long-absent father, he punches her.

In one of Updike’s stories about Henry Bech, someone tells the novelist that his books “are weeping, but there are no tears.” “Troubling Love” is soggy with tears—and the blank mood that flows a good long cry—but you can’t isolate the source of the weeping.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym adopted by a smart, ferocious Neapolitan writer who prefers to avoid the public eye. “Troubling Love” is her first novel; her second, published here last fall, was “The Days of Abandonment.” Both have been ably translated by Ann Goldstein, who has the patience of a dove and the stomach of a lion.

Ferrante is fascinated by the moments when a personality—like a wire stretched too far from its power source—shorts and corrodes. “I felt… as if I had left myself somewhere and was no longer able to find myself,” Delia confesses. “What an ingenuous and careless sort of makeup, to try to call ‘I’ this forced flight from a woman’s body…. I was no I.” In her best moments, she can sound like one of the world’s first quizzical humans: “I smiled to show that I wasn’t hostile but also to find out if he felt hostile toward me.”

Kafka advised that a book must be “an ax for the frozen sea inside us.” While much of life does seem to operate as an inducement to keep frozen, novels can be a boiling corrective. But Ferrante goes on chipping away. What this novel demonstrates is what happens when a writer, even the most adept, runs out of ice.

By DAVID LIPSKY