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New York TImes: "Ferrante's theme, while a staple of commercial fiction and television dramas, has seldom received such close scrutiny in literary fiction."

Date: Sep 27 2005

‘The Days of Abandonment': Il Divorzio

IN Elena Ferrante's tale of one deserted wife's descent into disarray, the narrator's husband of 15 years suddenly announces that he is leaving because he's "confused . . . having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice." Thirty-eight-year-old Olga has long since abandoned her early identity as a writer and spent most of her married life caring for Mario, an engineer at the Polytechnic in Turin, and their two children. She sits in her increasingly disorderly home, writing frantic letters to Mario and trying to identify the moment when her marriage stopped being the mature, disciplined partnership she'd thought it to be.

When Mario does turn up, it's to visit the children and assure Olga that he is a sad, detestable man. "He wanted me to understand what sort of person I had lived with for 15 years. So he recounted to me cruel memories of childhood, terrible problems of adolescence, nagging disorders of early youth. He wanted only to speak ill of himself . . . a good-for-nothing, incapable of true feelings, mediocre, adrift even in his profession." Olga tries to comfort him, hoping that will bring him home, but her efforts are pointless. Mario's self-flagellation and sad litanies of confusion are, of course, just an act. He is in love with another woman.

After a distressing little incident involving glass in the pasta sauce (An innocent mistake? Or did she mean for him to cut his duplicitous tongue?), Mario decamps for good without leaving an address. Thoroughly deserted (the couple's friends, in time-honored fashion, opt for the happy husband over the scary, depressed wife), Olga enters a purgatory of rage and bereavement. She takes dangerous risks driving and barely remembers to feed her children. Even these tendencies fail to alarm her as much as her shifting use of language. Once a woman who "always put in the commas," she describes how, in the course of a month, she "went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity."

Ferrante's theme, while a staple of commercial fiction and television dramas, has seldom received such close scrutiny in literary fiction. The novel, a best seller in the author's native Italy (and translated capably here by Ann Goldstein), progresses in a predictable, even classic, order - there is the chance encounter with Mario and his girlfriend at a jewelry store, the eventual détente with her former husband, the awkward groping toward a new relationship. Nevertheless, Ferrante, who has maintained the anonymity behind her pseudonym despite much speculation, makes her heroine a new and individual character in a well-worn story. The contrast between Olga's close self-scrutiny and utter lack of resulting self-awareness is particularly striking. Though it's occasionally frustrating to watch Olga hit all the familar marks (one can practically read the signposts: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance), we still root for her, for her damaged kids, even for the next imperfect man waiting for her attentions. Not for her lousy husband, though. Whether in a mass-market page turner, on a Lifetime Network movie or in this elegant little novel, it will always be good riddance to the Marios of the world.


By JEAN HANFF KORELITZ
Jean Hanff Korelitz's most recent novel is "The White Rose."