Having devoured the first three volumes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and while waiting impatiently for the fourth volume later this year, it seemed only reasonable to snack on one of her shorter novels, The Lost Daughter. As we might expect, the novel begins with an example of the brutal honesty with which Ferrante is associated as the narrator, Leda, declares:
“When my daughters moved to Toronto…I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather I felt light, as if only then had I definitely brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.”
Later she describes motherhood as “the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles.” It is perhaps for this reason that, on vacation, Leda begins to observe a young woman with her daughter as she relaxes on the beach. The woman is part of a large Neapolitan family “similar to the one I had been part of as a girl,” but:
“…an anomaly in the group, an organism that had mysteriously escaped the rule, the victim, now assimilated, if a kidnapping or of an exchange in the cradle.”
The young woman, Nina, clearly reminds Leda of herself (at no point in the novel does she acknowledge to the group her own Neapolitan roots), except perhaps in her relationship with her daughter, Elena:
“If the woman was pretty herself, in motherhood there was something that distinguished her; she seemed to have no desire for anything but her child.”
Ferrante infects the novel with unease from the beginning. In her holiday apartment, Leda discovers the bowl of fruit is rotten underneath; on her pillowcase she finds an insect; walking home from the beach she is hit by a pine cone. Each insignificant incident creates a sense of threat which culminates in Elena going missing on the beach. It is Leda who finds her, sitting near the water, crying – she has lost her doll.
It is at this point we discover Leda has move from observer to actor and, if like me, you want to enjoy the skilful reveals Ferrante has lined up, you might want to read no further. Leda returns Elena to her family, but the chapter ends with the revelation that she has taken the doll. Later she will call it “a gesture of mine that made no sense.” Does she resent the relationship between Nina and her daughter, or between Elena and the doll? Is she searching for a second chance at motherhood?
Later, when we discover Leda left her own daughters for three years when they were young, we might think she is somehow trying to reclaim that time, or atone for it. She tells how she wrote letters for her daughters “in which I recounted in detail how it had happened that I had abandoned them” but that they never answered or even referred to them. When she reveals her secret to Nina’s family, they worry she will corrupt Nina: just as Leda seems admiring of Nina’s qualities, so Nina is of Leda:
“As soon as I saw you I said to myself: I would like to be like that lady.”
The Lost Daughter is a wonderfully provocative, ambiguous novel. As the narrative punctures into Leda’s past, we see her character is more complex than at first appears, leaving her reaction to Nina’s plea to aid her in an affair uncertain, and the reasons for her decision to steal the doll unclear. The Lost Daughter asks many questions about motherhood but does not provide easy answers; in fact, it leaves us certain there are none.