Law and Conversation

January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.


  1. Oh, my goodness. It sounds like a marvelous read, full of enlightenment about how one woman manages to pull herself together (sort of?) and keep slogging through, out of, and away from a terrible situation (toward, one hopes, greater stability and happiness). Yet, after expressing this compelling reason to read this book, I don’t know whether to seek it out immediately or add it to my “read it later when life is less demanding” list. Perhaps the question should be framed as “will the distress caused by reading about someone’s suffering be offset by the lessons learned by watching the same person regain at least partial control of her existence after experiencing a sudden, severe trauma?” Perhaps, also, we should approach our reading–at least sometimes–with the same discipline that some of us, sometimes, apply to our eating? Yes, there’s a place for comfort food and reading (e.g., mac and cheese, potato chips, brownies and milk; how-to-be-organized magazine articles, cozy village mysteries in which the long-divorced librarian finally marries the widowed vicar…) but perhaps there’s also a place for intellectual as well as physical nutrition (e.g., broccoli, cabbage, kale, Greek-style yogurt, whole-grain breads in small portions). All of this is a fancy-schmancy way of saying that as much as my emotional self cringes at the thought, my intellectual self is intrigued by the educational possibilities of reading this novel.

    FWIW I came to your blog seeking relief after reading one too many articles about the too-young death and intellectual legacy of Aaron Swartz. I wondered whether you would have posted any comments on his life and death–and felt certain that whatever you said would be helpful. (No criticism here–no one person can respond to every development in the world!)

    Perhaps the people who knew Mr. Swartz best can be partially comforted by the fact that thanks to his work and that of his friends and colleagues, ordinary people–not just Internet cognoscenti–find so much value from the online world. Beyond providing a vast collection of useful and esoteric information, the internet also offers refuge, distractions (both good and bad) from serious problems, and many different examples of ways of coping with life and being human. Amidst these riches, people can some community and comfort in sharing each others’ journeys. Thanks for contributing to this via your blog.

    Comment by Rachel — January 16, 2013 @ 6:16 am | Reply

    • Thanks for taking the time to post this very thoughtful and well-written comment, Rachel. I don’t think Elena Ferrante’s books are for everyone or for any frame of mind; they are emotionally tough and I personally need a break at some point.

      Aaron Swartz’s death is just tragic, and the world is poorer for his loss. Among many others who knew Aaron (as I did not) and understood Aaron’s talents and contributions, and the facts and law of his situation (as, again, I do not), Professor Lawrence Lessig posted this thought-provoking tribute:

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — January 16, 2013 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  2. […] I’ve written before of how powerful I’ve found the novels of the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. When I noticed her latest book, “My Brilliant Friend,” on my local library’s new books shelf, I had to check it out, even though I had several others in progress at home (nothing new there). […]

    Pingback by Elena Ferrante is my #FridayReads AGAIN « Law and Conversation — January 24, 2013 @ 11:47 pm | Reply

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