From Three Percent
“I’m an unnatural mother,” the protagonist, Leda, says of herself.
In this brave and searing novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter explores the psyche of a woman who regrets having children. Leda is a modern Italian woman. She is divorced. She is an accomplished professor. And she is comfortable being alone. She decides to take herself on six-week vacation off the Ionian coast to prepare for the upcoming school year. She lounges on the beach, and almost immediately, she becomes obsessed with a young mother and her little daughter. Before we realize it, we are accompanying her on deep psychological self-examination of her life as a mother, and how perhaps she never wanted to be or never should have been.
“When my daughters had moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then I had definitively brought them into the world.”
Because Ferrante writes this book in the first person, Leda’s thoughts, feelings and confessions have an immediacy that is disturbing and difficult, at times, to take. We learn that Leda hasn’t been a good mother, but we still want to understand her. Ferrante handles this expertly with her narrative abilities, never giving us less than the truth, no matter how much it makes us want to turn away. It is unsettling to read Leda’s memory of her reaction to her daughter cutting her finger as she tried to peel an orange:
“She was five and immediately in despair: the blood flowed, along with tears of disappointment. I was frightened, yelled at her: I couldn’t leave her alone for a moment, there was never time for myself. I felt that I was suffocating, it seemed to me that I was betraying myself. For long minutes I refused to kiss her wound, the kiss that makes the pain go away. I wanted to teach her that you don’t do that, it’s dangerous, only Mama does it, who is grownup. Mama.”
What makes Ferrante’s writing so compelling is that she does not compromise—no compromise for Leda’s analytical review of her motherhood, no compromise in emotional depth, and no compromise for the human condition. Although she deals with topics particular to women in this novel—as well as her first two novels, Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment—she avoids sentimentality and the common characteristics associated with feminine writing: refinement and sensitivity. The slightly masculine tone propels the narrative forward and lends credence to Leda’s unforgiving self-examination.
Leda’s journey parallels her developing relationship with the attractive young mother, Nina, who initially ignites Leda’s jealousy. Nina’s uncomplicated and pure love for her little daughter preoccupies Leda, and angers her as she realizes that she dislikes the little girl, “…that there was something off about the little girl, I don’t know what; a childish sadness, perhaps, or a silent illness.”
What is also striking about The Lost Daughter are the surprises that come from the characters behavior, not plot devices cleverly inserted to string us along. The characters are so well drawn, that we do not question their unpredictability, we merely accept it and want more. We see this best when the little girl loses her doll on the beach and Leda finds it, but keeps it without letting Nina know that she has her daughter’s doll. The child cries and screams, Nina and her family desperately search for the doll, and Leda watches this with detachment and we don’t find out until the end why she does this. The characters are intricate, their details revealed to us through Ferrante’s precision.
A major reason why the narrative flows so well is due to Ann Goldstein’s translation of Ferrante’s novel from Italian to English. Goldstein has translated all three of Ferrante’s novels flawlessly and with each effort she captures the nuances of the author’s style and intent. We forget that we are reading a translated work, which perhaps is the best indicator that we are in the capable hands of a masterful translator.
The Lost Daughter is a swift and mesmerizing work that reminds us of the darkness that resides in all of us and that the mistakes we make can serve as illuminations into our own psyche. We may not like what we find, but Ferrante shows us that it is in these moments that we know ourselves most intimately and that is reason enough.
Review by Monica Carter