A friend of mine came back from a trip to Italy singing the praises of Elena Ferrante, a pseudonymous author whose true identity is shrouded in mystery. I don’t go in much for literary speculation, so I choose to believe that she’s some kind of demiurge, shaping herself from the collective unconscious of female readers who are stuck reading Gone Girl knockoffs and imposters, searching for the kind of deeper literary exploration of the complexities of womanhood that third-wave feminism seems to have no need for. Even Margaret Atwood has gone genre, albeit sci-fi, and seems to have lost her taste for plumbing the depths of female trouble. A book like Surfacing feels so 80s and we’re way cooler than that, right? We don’t need Margaret Duras or Doris Lessing or Jeannette Winterston and all their sexual-political philosophizing, we just want a page turner that makes us feel smarter than we do when we read Outlander.
I started with The Lost Daughter, my friend’s recommendation, and after three pages had to stop so that I could place interlibrary loan requests for all her other books. Narrated by Leda, a college professor on holiday in Naples, the book stays tightly within her point-of-view as Ferrante deftly manipulates our affections and perceptions. It’s a tale of hysteria, it’s a thriller, it reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s standalone novels (particularly The Cry of the Owl, only without the murders). Ferrante makes a thriller out of self-deception; she doesn’t need a body to make the stakes feel menacingly high.
This was a great book to read during my current phase of life, as a middle-aged mom of two daughters, wondering what my life will be like after my girls leave me. Will I love my work the way I love them? How much will I mourn the passing of time? Will I make choices that surprise me? Leda’s predicament made me anxious, but also hopeful. There is something on the other side of motherhood, and it will be up to me to carve a future for myself.