The title of Elena Ferrante's first novel has been translated as Troubling Love, but as the Italian original (L'amore molesto) and the film-title ('Nasty Love') suggest, what's going on here is perhaps more than that. It's certainly deeply, deeply troubling. The story is narrated by Delia. Her mother was supposed to have come visit her in Rome, but never made it. Amalia was found dead instead, drowned.
It's not clear whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder. The book focusses on the days shortly after the death -- the funeral and after, with Delia learning more about her mom, and remembering the traumatic past. The death of a close family member is always difficult, but given her family relationships and conditions Delia really has a lot to deal with.
It presumably doesn't help that Amalia dies on Delia's birthday. But it's some of the mystery surrounding it that affects Delia, leading her to wonder how much she knew about her mother at all -- such as the bra that is the only article of clothing Amalia is wearing when she's found, "very different from the shabby ones she usually wore".
The family history is complicated and ugly. Delia and her siblings have drifted apart, her mother and father separated long ago. "No, I no longer liked anything about the past", Delia admits, and given her relatives it's no surprise. Dad is a painter of cheap gaudy wall-fillers, an angry and unpleasant man with whom it's hard to see anybody getting along.
Long ago another man, Caserta, had caused the family to fall apart over the affair he was apparently having with Amalia. The truth of what happened way back then -- with five year old Delia in the middle of it -- is only eventually revealed, though regardless of the details it sounds like it was only a matter of time before dad smacked Amalia around some and took off.
Caserta, his mind muddling with age, is also still around, and played a part in Amalia's life again. Delia has to face that (and Caserta's son) too, as she tries to piece together who her mother really was.
It all makes for a fairly intense account, with Delia in that verging on hysterical (or at least loss of self control) state not uncommon among those dealing with tragic death. Delia is full of love and hate, continuing to be torn apart by a brutal (physically and emotionally) family and not many good memories. It's the kind of family where Dad winds up telling Delia things like: "You were repulsive even as a child". No wonder she wants to forget the past, when even the present is this ugly.
Ferrante's book is emotionally intense, and is at least an interesting account of a daughter with a lot of issues dealing with the loss of her mother, the tug of being her own woman versus that of recognising how very much she is her mother's daughter almost tearing her apart. But it's certainly not a pleasant read. Ferranate's vivid and brutally honest descriptions can impress, and probably do serve the story well, yet some of it is just plain disturbing (notably her description of arousal and trying to engage in any sort of sex, something that causes Delia to get sopping wet apparently from head to toe; when she tries to masturbate "my sex got so wet that the fingers slipped over it without purchase, and I could no longer tell if I was really touching myself or only imagined that I was"). Even the dedication -- 'For my mother' -- leaves an unpleasant taste (it ain't exactly a love-letter to mom ...).
For those who like their family sagas down and dirty, Ferrante certainly delivers the goods. Delia's soul- (and fact-)searching are, in part, quite well done, and as she reveals more about the past in Delia's attempt to understand her family she does offer some vivid portraits and encounters. But we simply found it too grim and miserable.
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