Trapped in the Mind of a Woman
April 25th, 2008
I love her writing, she’s perfect for book clubs, and no one knows who she really is.
Elena Ferrante is currently a very popular Italian author whose identity remains unknown. Imagine, in this age of celebrity, an author who actually chooses to avoid the celebrity machine, and succeeds! Ferrante lives in Naples, and that’s all anyone knows about her, other than that her swift, elegant novels are intense little bullets of literature, electrifying experiences in which you become trapped in a woman’s mind.
I should know. I’ve just escaped from narrator Leda’s mind in Ferrante’s newest novel, The Lost Daughter. What an experience.
Leda hasn’t been a very good mother, and her two twenty-something daughters have gone to live with their father in Toronto. For the first time in decades Leda is alone again. She rents a summer place and goes to the beach, where she becomes fascinated watching a pretty new mother and her daughter. Their lives converge.
We get a nice jolt of a plot surprise on page 40, and another nice surprise on page 82, and the whole thing wraps on page 125. Which means the neat little novel falls into perfect thirds. Five pages from the end, I had absolutely no idea where the plot was going, only that the two previous shocks appeared to be on a collision course. I’ve just finished the novel. The ending was utterly unexpected and completely satisfying.
It’s Leda’s voice that’s hypnotic, and it’s the writing that makes it that way. Ferrante can do a woman’s interior dialogue like no one else, with a ferocity that is shockingly honest, unnervingly blunt. Only a woman could have written this, but don’t expect poetic, sensitive, delicate stuff. This is not that kind of feminine writing. You’re afraid of what she’s going to say next. You’re not sure you want to hear it.
She admits things most people erase from their memories. The many times she loses her patience being a mother. The many times she snaps at her children, or treats someone unfairly. As a man, I can’t imagine how this would read to a mother. Is Leda not cut out to be a mother, or is this what all women go through? She records the numerous miscommunications between mothers and their children with excruciating precision. Maybe it’s her anonymity as a writer that allows Ferrante let go of propriety and admit the dozens of blunders and little unpleasant deeds that litter our lives.
Trapped inside her head, watching how her emotions bump her into making bad decisions and dangerous choices, Ferrante makes you achingly aware of how many illogical, small-minded, counter-productive things you yourself do every day.
It’s like a member of the reading group suddenly taking off all her clothes and telling you candidly what she really did last summer. You feel that someone is trusting you with her inner life, telling you her story because she needs to tell someone, but at the same time you’re not sure if maybe you wouldn’t rather bolt from the room. But now you can discuss her. You’ve all heard her confession. You know everything you need to know.
She has two other slim novels in English translation, The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, each of them narrated in first person by a different woman, perhaps all of them simply the voice of Elena Ferrante taking us on a tour of the thrilling, dangerous terrain inside her soul, all three of them in those handsome Europa paperbacks that are such a dang pleasure to read. Next time your reading group is looking for a fresh new voice, I’d take a look at the work of this mysterious, unknown Italian woman who calls herself Elena Ferrante.