Olga’s husband Mario has just left her and her two young children for a younger woman, with zero warning. Over the next two days, her world falls apart: a sick child and a misbehaving dog derail her sanity completely, and she becomes literally trapped in her apartment. A sense of outsized dread and terror builds with each sentence, making the book impossible to put down til the final page. Olga’s interiority is so skillfully rendered as to be horribly familiar to anyone who’s ever been devastated by loss and grief. So, well, not our most lighthearted pick, but a perversely enjoyable read nonetheless and an overdue introduction (for us, at least!) to this great author’s work.
Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist whose books are published in the U.S. by Europa Editions. Her most recent novel is the acclaimed The Story of the Lost Child.
What is it about bad girls that is so alluring? Maybe it’s the seized power they signify, or the agency their badness implies, or just the comebacks and leather jackets, but I always love the “bad” women in literature best. Here are some books that are blessed with such mavens, whose antics range from mere misbehavior to pure evil, who are antagonists and antiheroines and just plain heroines who just also happen to be jerks a lot of the time. Some of these characters are deeply lovable despite their flaws, and some readers just love to hate. But no matter what, they will delight you in all of their badness. Read on for some deliciously bad ladies of literature, and if I’ve missed your favorite, sing her praises (er, or shriek her name in terror) in the comments.
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
The narrator of this extraordinary novel’s husband has just left her, and as the book unfolds, so does Olga. She ignores her sick children. She throws screaming fits in public. She makes dismal attempts at sexual encounters with her neighbors. She thinks the worst things and develops a keen taste for what she calls “obscene language.” She is bad — but her badness is a reaction to grief, to abandonment, to despair, and her abject rage will make you love her.
I’ve heard it said that only women can fully appreciate the achievement of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist of obsessively guarded privacy. It is certainly true that I have never experienced the agony of childbirth. I have never known the adolescent trauma of inexplicable bleeding. Nor have I felt what life is like for a single woman – an abandoned wife or one that has left her husband – forced to deal with her grief and fury. I have not felt the love-hate that Ferrante’s protagonists harbour against their mothers and children, or their jealousy of younger, more attractive women. I have not suffered the sexual indignities and outrages her characters endure.
You might know Elena Ferrante as that anonymous Italian author nobody knows anything about. In the only interview she’s given—conducted by her publishers and featured in the Paris Review—Ferrante explains that the reason she has completely shunned public life and uses a pen name is so readers focus on her words and not her persona. Unlike most authors, who are pressured to tweet and post about their new publications and reviews, and who sheepishly implore friends and fans to attend their readings, Ferrante says her anonymity has allowed her to avoid “the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media.” Self-promotion feels cheap because it cheapens the work of art; the focus becomes the author and not the author’s books. While avoiding this trap, Ferrante has been able to write some truly phenomenal books—so phenomenal that she herself has become a phenomenon.
Dramatist Bryony Lavery has written prolifically since the 1970s, recently adapting Treasure Island for the National Theatre. Other works includeHer Aching Heart and Frozen, which won the TMA best new play award in 1998 and received four Tony nominations when it was produced on Broadway. Her work for BBC radio includes an adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Childrenand the Sony award-nominated No Joan of Arc. Lavery was artistic director of the Gay Sweatshop theatre company and founded feminist cabaret group Female Trouble. She is on the judging panel for the Bruntwood prize for playwriting, which is open for entries until 5 June.
This is about a woman with two children whose husband announces that he’s leaving her. She really goes wild, exacting revenge and damage on everybody. Then she retrieves her sanity and loses her love for him, and it’s brilliantly savage.Elena Ferrante is a wonderful Italian writer; I’m halfway through My Brilliant Friend, about a long-term friendship between two women in Naples.
The writer known by that name has never been photographed, interviewed in person or even made a public appearance, but a collection of fiercely candid novels has earned her (him?) recognition as one of the keenest observers of Italian society. On the eve of the publication of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the much-anticipated third volume in the author’s Neapolitan series, three admirers celebrate this elusive talent.
A masterful portrayal of an abandoned, self-aware wife
Author: Carlin Romano
The Days of Abandonment
By Elena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions. 188 pp. $14.95
Thanksgiving to Christmas strikes marketers as holiday shopping time, but for some it arrives as the season of self-consciousness, a period when solitude stares back.
Family this, family that – the world seems reorganized to shine a spotlight on the most important private relationships in one’s life. Everyday substitutes for a core intimate existence – school, the office – retreat into the background, to return in January. The number of mirrors in one’s vicinity appears to increase.
You know you’re in for a grueling read when there’s an Alice Sebold blurb on the cover. And Elena Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment” does not disappoint, or at least is disappointing only in the way people are to each other. What is striking about this short novel, which, starting in 2002, topped the best-seller list in Italy for a year, and which has now been translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at the magazine, is how matter-of-fact the narrator is, even when she is faced with devastation. She begins, “One April afternoon, right after our lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Not a lot happens after that—there’s a little mystery regarding her dog, and an acrimonious neighbor, and her children must be fed and dressed and taken to school every day—but we crawl into the darkest parts of the abandoned wife’s mind as she moves through the various stages of grief. Her reaction, veering from denial to bargaining to anger to acceptance, is textbook, but the experience of reading “The Days of Abandonment” is utterly immersive, and the opposite of allegory. That’s in part, perhaps, because Ferrante’s writing is so precise, as thin as a matchstick. At one point, getting out of bed after a sleepless night, longing and lonely, the narrator says, “No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical senses.”
The template for the hot-blooded Italian best seller “The Days of Abandonment” is familiar, in fiction and in life. But the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare. Using the secret of her identity to elevate this book’s already high drama, the author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) describes the violent rupture of a marriage with all the inner tranquillity that you might associate with Medea. When her book’s heroine has the temerity to invoke Anna Karenina approaching the railroad tracks, the analogy is actually well earned.