Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Lost Daughter

You may wonder why I keep updating this book blog, given that no one reads it.  I think maybe I keep updating it precisely because no one reads it.  There’s a certain comfort in that solitude.

Speaking of solitude (how do you like that transition?), Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (translated from Italian), tells of Leda, a woman whose (just barely) grown daughters have left to live with their father in Canada. (I so rarely use parentheses, but sometimes, the mood strikes.)  Leda goes on a beach holiday by herself, looking for solitude and relaxation.

Ostensibly, at least.

Because, as soon as she arrives on the beach, she becomes taken with a large family group, especially a young mother in their midst.  Leda finds herself watching them, then interacting with them, and then becoming embroiled in their dramas. The central drama is small – involving a little girl and her doll – but it forces to the surface Leda’s own conflicts as a woman and a mother.  The usual theme, perhaps, of a woman struggling with the whole “mommy versus woman” thing, but it’s different here, perhaps because Leda’s daughters are grown and we see the conflict in retrospect.  Only as she watched the little girl with the doll and the mother with the little girl does she begin to process her own young motherhood.

I’d tell you more, but it’s one of those plots that’s so sparse that I’d sort of ruin the book if I went into more detail.  However, I can say that the description of the doll is magnificent.  The doll has sand and water in its stomach, a sort of crude approximation of pregnancy – mirroring the little girl’s aunt, who is grotesquely pregnant.  For a woman who has raised daughters to describe a pregnancy as a bit repulsive is startling, as we love to romanticize pregnancy.  Indeed, Leda herself sometimes romanticizes the aunt’s pregnancy.  Yet, when she more or less performs a D&C on the doll, a purging of the doll’s motherhood, she is acknowledging that pregnancy can be an invasion, as can motherhood.

The little girl is extravagantly attached to the doll – her baby. Yet she leaves it thrown aside in the sand when she goes to play.  As a mother, she is like all the mothers in the text: overly demonstrative in her love yet burdened by the demands of her offspring.  The doll is not a simple symbol, as its meaning morphs throughout the text, nor are any of the mothers easily defined.  The doll’s meaning changes as it is layered against one female character or another, just as the other female characters change their meaning in Leda’s eyes depending upon her own internal weather.

This is a short read, but it is not a facile text.  It requires a certain agility, a willingness to allow Leda to reinterpret throughout.  The prose is delicate and compelling, and Leda is well-developed.  I’d tell you to read it, but since we’ve already established that no one reads this blog, I’m not sure who I’d be telling to read the book.