The lost daughter by Elena Ferrante

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Trans. by Ann Goldstein. Text, 2015, 9781925240139
Recommended for Senior readers. The short novel, almost a novella, The Lost Daughter is a powerful exploration of some of the themes Elena Ferrante explores in her Neapolitan Novels series (to be completed with Volume 4 in October). Set in contemporary Italy it examines identity, motherhood and the nature of knowledge. When Leda's adult daughters leave her to live with their father in Canada she is surprisingly relieved. She pursues the academic career she has persisted with through the years of child raising, dreads their phone calls with the demands they always imposed and goes on holiday alone. While on holiday, relaxing on the beach, she begins to review her life as a mother, a process in part inspired by her observations of a beautiful young woman and her demanding child. While lying on her towel Leda notes the obsessive nature of the relationship, in its physicality and emotional intensity, which is passed on by the child to her doll. The doll is of course compliant and pliable and thus is a more satisfactory child than a real one. Leda begins to take notice of the pair's family, the mother's gross husband, her demanding and flagrantly pregnant sister-in-law and a collection of other relations, all Neapolitan and speaking the Napolese dialect that still marked her own speech. Her mind turns to her escape from Naples when she was 18 and her rejection of that part of her life but which has left its mark on her own accented Italian. A sudden storm on the beach allows her to steal the child's doll, which she hides in her apartment, buys clothes for and gruesomely expels a worm from its body, an act that is comparable to aborting a growth. The doll is again an ideal child, unlike her own daughters, a child that accepts attention but doesn't demand or distract, a child whose sexuality can be controlled. Leda by chance becomes friendly with the child's mother who expresses her admiration for Leda's learning and grace, until she reveals the doll. Screaming in vicious dialect the mother tells Leda that her books and learning mean nothing before shockingly assaulting her. In the end an act of cheerful acceptance, a sign of love, from her daughters restores balance to Leda's life, and the reader is left with the understanding that this love counts for more than the challenges that the children have caused. Ferrante is concerned with the complexity of being a woman, a mother and a daughter, and the power of upbringing, as well as the limited effect of education. She asks how much can learning, reading and knowing literature moderate the effects of the dilemmas of motherhood? This powerful novel is recommended for older readers.
Jenny Hamilton