Mother and housewife Olga, 38, is left by her husband Mario, 40, for a girl they have both known since she was fifteen. Olga and Mario have two children and a dog, and live in a flat in a tower block in Turin. This is a story of a midlife crisis; of Mario who questions his male power, and Olga, whose fantasy life gets popped like a balloon.
Throughout her marriage Olga spent most of her time pleasing her husband, feeding his every whim to ensure that he remained hers. Like every woman who believed the myth of the princess who wins her prince, Olga became the housewife who lived her life through her husband and children – an unlived life, a life without appreciation and gratitude, a life of unmet needs, and neglect for personal development and talent: ‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his. At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him … I had taken care of the house, I had taken care of the meals, I had taken care of the children, I had taken care of all the boring details of everyday life…’ (p63).
But when Mario saw Carla, someone younger and fresher, he wanted her, so he went for her and won her. And this is where the story starts, with the opening line of the book reading: ‘One April afternoon… my husband announced that he wanted to leave me…’
The trauma at being abandoned and becoming a single parent led to many negative reactions for Olga. She neglected her children, forgot to feed them, did not notice when her son was ill, and leant heavily on her daughter for support. In the following weeks she nosedived from a lack of focus to complete breakdown, through an agonizing loss of her sense of self and her short-term memory. She embarked on a fantasy world, unable to conceive of the mess her now empty life had become, rearing up like a void before her. She neurotically scrubbed the flat clean before letting out the dog, who needed walking. When it returned it was ill and eventually died, probably from ingesting rat poison. In her self-deprecation, she believed she killed the dog and, perhaps, poisoned her own son: ‘Give back to me a sense of proportion. What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief; not, surely, a witch who, out of desperation, secretes a poison that can give a fever to her male child, kill a domestic animal….’ (p118).
Meanwhile, in the fog of her unreality, Olga self-harmed to stay present:
‘“Why did you put that clip on your arm?” asked her daughter Ilaria. … The tiny pain it caused me had become a constitutional part of my flesh…
“It helps me remember. Today is a day when everything is slipping my mind, I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll help you.”
“Really?” I got up, took from the desk a metal paper cutter. “Hold this…. If you see me getting distracted, poke me…. Prick me until I feel it”.’ (p133)
In an attempt to relieve the pain, to create a distraction and to tell herself that she was still attractive, Olga seduced an undesirable neighbour, Carrano, a man who could play romantic music, but who could not make love. This led to self-disgust and frustration with whom she had become. She questioned her own identity and blamed herself for the loss of her marriage, asking herself obsessively what had happened in those ten years of matrimony: ‘For Mario I – I shuddered – had never been Olga. The meanings, the meaning of her life – I suddenly understood – were only a dazzlement of late adolescence, my illusion of stability.’ (p124)
Later, in discussion about custody of the children, her husband told her that she had to have the children more often because ‘…. You’re their mother’. (p185) Is he not their father?
Ferrante does not hold back on her characterization of abandonment. It is detailed and upsetting to say the least. Olga is so isolated and lost and this, I feel, is surprisingly universal. Ferrante describes what all women may feel following such an abandonment: that their lives will never be the same again.
While Olga’s life indeed never will be the same again, her mid-life crisis may be the end of the first part of her life and a time for change and, perhaps, betterment. Carl Jung believed that this time of life was a normal part of adult maturation, an opportunity for change. Jung (1971) identified five stages of life resulting in individuation, which arrived between the ages of 38 and 44 and which he called a creative illness. This crisis was the primary task of the second half of life.
The late adolescence that Ferrante’s Olga mentioned in this book (p124) is also synonymous with the Intimacy v. Isolation conflict listed in Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory about the development of the personality (1950, p.255), whereby ‘.. the young adult, emerging from the search for and the insistence on identity, is eager and willing to fuse his identity with that of others … the avoidance of such experiences because of a fear of ego-loss may lead to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption’.
Erikson’s stages suggest that Olga’s regret at the loss of this seemingly ecstatic time can transform into another stage, the midlife crisis, which occurs during the 35-64 years and is a time for questioning the meaning and purpose of one’s life.
This devastating but short story gives us a cameo of a woman in the throes of change through loss, disbelief, to mistrust, and, hopefully, of a woman who will learn through her dismal experience and become fulfilled by her later discoveries. Elena Ferrante, author of seven other books about Italian women (particularly of Neapolitan women) and their lives and relationships, does not fail in her accurate sketches, which will resonate with all women across the world.
Lynda Woodroffe is a psychotherapist based in North West London and a member of the Contemporary Psychotherapy editorial board.