I picked up Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment’ absent-mindedly while in McNally Jackson in Soho. At first it seemed an unlikely choice. A book about a Neapolitan woman living in Turin who is told by her husband that he is leaving her for another woman.
This news is devastating enough for any person but for the heroine of Ferrante’s novel it is cataclysmic and sends her into a spiral of hatred fear and self-loathing.
What’s makes the book so fascinating is its coruscating honesty and passion. Ferrante doesn’t put a positive gloss on her heroine’s collapse. Olga attacks her husband in the street; she is spiteful to neighbors, her old friends, even her children. She seems at times almost overcame with bitterness or too distracted to actually function in the real world. At one point her daughter stabs her in the leg with a pair of scissors but she is too out of it to realize until she sees the gaping wound.
There is something monstrous about her, as if the love she felt for her husband has been eviscerated and replaced by pure hatred. She is poisoning herself with her feelings and seems to be powerless to stop it. Perhaps her most terrifying fear is that she becomes like the’ poverella’, a woman she remembers from her Neapolitan childhood. The ‘poverella’ was so-called because she suffered the terrible fate of having her husband leave her for another woman. Eventually she becomes a sad and dejected object of pity and takes her own life. She haunts Olga, metaphorically and literally (at one stage she starts hallucinating the woman in her apartment)
Yet as the novel progresses we come to see that all this emotion is not self-destructive but cathartic. It’s almost as if she has an illness and her anger is the fever that needs to work itself out of her body for her to be cured.
Indeed this idea physically manifests it self in a scene near the end of the book when the family dog is poisoned and her son suffers a severe virus.
The dog dies, the son recovers and from this point so does Olga. For once the love she felt for her husband has vanished, the hate can leave too and she can move on with her life.
In the end the novel is upbeat. The ending sees her find not just herself but love in the form of her neighbor, a musician.
It’s one of those happy endings that is totally justified by the previous action. After all Olga has won. She has beaten her demons and those of a sexist society by facing them like a mighty warrior. It’s noticeable how fearless and combative she is during much of the novel, almost as if she were a mythical Homerian hero defeating magical creatures.
I can imagine this would be a very popular choice with any woman who’ve been through a traumatic break up but as man I still found it to be a compelling, if sobering, read.