The Philadelphia Inquirer

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.

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment stands as a masterpiece of a particular sort of solitude: that felt by the wife summarily dismissed by her husband. One not-so-fine day, as Olga, 38, and Mario, 40, her husband of 15 years, are clearing the table after lunch, Mario announces that he’s leaving. Not just Olga, mind you, but little Gianni, 10, and Ilaria, 7, and Otto, their German shepherd.


Yes, one of the half-dozen eternal plots. But to use the “M” word with Days of Abandonment reveals no special acumen here. European papers showered Ferrante, a Neapolitan author who shuns publicity, with extraordinary praise.


“Awesome lucidity and precision,” wrote El Mundo. “A rare and acute pitch,” chimed in La Stampa of Turin, where the story takes place.


And let’s share, unusually, a back-cover comment from another brilliant novelist out of the blue, a more familiar voice.


“I read this novel in one day from cover to cover,” reports Alice Sebold, “forcing myself to take breaks as a swimmer breaks the surface of the water.”


Same here. The book’s intensity demands it, and stands second only to its astonishing exactness of insight, its introspective wisdom. The experience of being alone, Ferrante understands, depends on what the TV screen inside your head is showing just now, and whether you know how to click it away.


Olga, the book’s narrator and an aspiring writer, long ago decided to control, rather than be controlled by, her emotions. She’s always feared turning into the poverella, that sorry middle-aged neighbor during her childhood who responded to her husband’s departure by wailing at night, then killing herself.


Olga starts out confident that Mario, an engineer, is “going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.”


He’ll be back, she’s sure – he’s gone off the reservation before. But as days turn to weeks and months, Olga’s confidence switches to fury. She quarrels with friends. She brakes late when driving. She repeatedly hits Otto with a branch when the dog barks too much at a mother and baby in the park. She obsesses about Mario “and his slut,” imagining their sex life, cruising their neighborhood in hopes of confronting them.


At the same time, Olga’s efforts to maintain normalcy at home – to “be careful to salt the pasta, be careful to note the expiration date of food, be careful not to leave the gas on” – fall apart.


Slowly, inexorably, with a withering self-attentiveness that is Ferrante’s most remarkable feat, Olga becomes everything she once fought.


Ferrante’s hairpin plot turns, convincing and especially suspenseful for a story whose ongoing grip rests in authoritative characterization, deserve protection. Enough to say that Olga’s battle between control and catharsis, her ongoing admiration for “women with resources, women of invincible words” – even as her own words undermine – come across like high opera heard low, as if over a car radio amid outside din.


“Women without love,” Olga’s mother used to tell her, “lose the light in their eyes, women without love die while they are still alive.” With conditioning like that, Olga’s path might seem ordained.


Yet the magic of Days of Abandonment on every page remains the fierce intelligence of its narrator. Despite the smashed cell phone, uncooked meals, flirtatious missteps, Olga’s self-awareness eclipses that of anyone around her.


In the end, she becomes the perfect Pascalian protagonist. Others – many others – are alone and abandoned. But Olga knows she’s alone and abandoned.


That, and her uncanny sensibility, is her triumph, and the ground from which the rest of her life will grow.

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