Elena Ferrante: The Lost Daughter

At times, you come across a book, like Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, that jolts you into a past that you’ve survived but have never quite come to terms with. It’s like peering into a looking glass and saying, “Hello,” to yourself in another time. 

In The Lost Daughter, Leda, the narrator decides to use her teaching break to go to an upscale beach resort, after a mental blackout signals that she needs to unwind. However, settled every day with a book under a beach umbrella, behind sunglasses, she soon begins to recognize palimpsests of her earlier life.

There is Nina, in her early twenties, married, with her two year old daughter, Elena; Nina’s brawny husband, Toni, and his boorish affluent young relatives; Toni’s sister, Rosaria, a permanent fixture on the beach, who reminds Leda of the vulgarities of her childhood that she worked so hard to flee; the young male student Gino, the beach hand, hankering for a sneaky affair with Nina; and interwoven in the cast sundry other foils, such as the narrator’s distant daughters and ex-husband, who revive the visitation of a past that is never really past.

However, it’s the battered, yet much loved doll, Nani, of Elena that creates gestation for The Lost Daughter. For the novel is as much about birthing, as it is about uncovering deeper layers of self-awareness.  “A shattering” (102) – Leda remembers was her mother’s term for it.

So at the disappearance of Nani, Elena’s doll everyone is inconsolable. 

Unknown to all, the brilliant sophisticated university professor, Leda, with kleptomaniacal cunning has stolen it. Meanwhile Nina, the young mother and wife, a mirror image of Leda twenty years earlier, is overwhelmed with the personal storm that the missing doll has brought to a head in her life – she’s ready to run, as Leda, the narrator, at her age had run from her stifling marriage and the prospect of a wasted life.

Of course, Leda, the narrator returns the stolen doll, cuts short her vacation and heads back to her literature professorship. But the intertextuality of Sylvia’s Plath’s “Three Women”, William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”, and the mythological rape of Leda, immortalized in literature, only deepens the canvas of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter.

© Cynthia James – December 2015

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