The Seattle Times

“THE LOST DAUGHTER” is hardly a parenting guide



May 23, 2008

The Lost Daughter


Europa, 160 pp., paperback, $14.95


If you are looking for uplifting bromides about the intimate mother-daughter bond, do not look to Elena Ferrante’s novels.


This superb and scary Italian writer, who chooses to remain anonymous by publishing her popular books under a pseudonym, has blown the lid off tempestuous parent-child relations in each of the three novels that have been translated into English for Europa Editions.

And the latest, “The Lost Daughter,” is about as sentimental in its view of parenting as a Mother’s Day card inscribed in battery acid. But if they are not for the psychologically squeamish, Ferrante’s riveting accounts of women confronting their darkest fears and loathing can’t help but ring true on some subterranean level of consciousness. Even if one wishes they would not.


In this new novel, we get inside the restive mind and soul of Leda, a successful, middle-age literature professor embarking on a solo vacation in a beach town.


Her two daughters, both in their 20s, are off in Canada visiting their father, Leda’s genial ex-husband. And though Leda expects she might be in for a relaxing but lonely sojourn, she finds she has almost too much company — including various manifestations of herself.


In the patch of crowded beach where she sunbathes daily, Leda encounters a large, boisterous family she takes a voyeuristic interest in. In fact, she quickly becomes obsessed with a pretty young mother, Nina, and her demanding little daughter.


Alternating between attraction and revulsion, jealousy and contempt, Leda finds herself sucked into a maelstrom of memories about her tortured relationship with her mother.


Even more vivid are Leda’s recollections about the raising of her own daughters. With unsparing candor, we are privy to years of Leda’s guilt, rage, remorse and glimmers of tenderness.


Ferrante doesn’t foster any stereotypes of an abusive parent here. But being intelligent, educated, attractive and sophisticated has not made raising children any easier for Leda. Probably the competing urges to tend to her daughters and pursue her own career and emotional needs have made it worse, “The Lost Daughter” suggests.


As Leda goes through the motions of a vacation, and spies on Nina and family, she can’t help projecting her parental sins on these strangers. Or recalling her impatience with her children, when they were demanding toddlers. How she slapped them in the heat of anger. Worst of all, her abandonment of them for several years, without regret, because she simply couldn’t cope.


One hallmark of Ferrante’s writing here, as in “Days of Abandonment” and other works, is how she skillfully peels back the mask of “normalcy” and conjures the sensations of being in a living nightmare. However, she passes no moral judgment on her female protagonists. Even at their most transgressive, they are really no more monstrous, or less human, than the rest of us.


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