The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

There are taboo subjects when it comes to motherhood – things that mothers might think about but rarely, if ever, talk about. Having favourite children; fantasisng about simply walking out and leaving the family to look after themselves; resenting children for robbing you of career or life aspirations; feeling jealous of your own children and their opportunities; judging other women’s’ parenting; loving your children but not ‘liking’ them very much. Mothers, are you squirming?

“The hardest things to talk about are the ones that we ourselves can’t understand.”

Elena Ferrante delves into the ‘unspokens’ of motherhood in her novel,  The Lost Daughter.

The Lost Daughter is a short but intense story about a woman named Leda. She’s middle-aged, divorced, and alone for the first time in years when her daughters leave home (in Italy) to live with their father (in Canada). Leda’s initial, unexpected sense of liberty turns to ferocious introspection following a seemingly trivial occurrence while she’s on holiday in an Italian seaside town.

“No one depended anymore on my care and, finally, even I was no longer a burden to myself.”

When fiction makes you pause and really, truly consider your own lot in life, it’s good fiction. The story is written in the first-person and Leda’s stream of consciousness is unflinching, uncensored and incredibly real. Ferrante writes in such a way that it makes it very difficult for the reader to be judgmental – is any mother ‘perfect’? No. Are there things you would do differently if you had your time again? Yes. Ferrante exposes a brutal, emotional side of mothering and whilst many readers may (uncomfortably) identify with bits of Leda’s story, the plot takes Leda to darker places.

Despite The Lost Daughter being a short novel (125 pages), it has some beautifully crafted plot twists that force you to rethink the character of Leda (for that reason, avoid reviews that have spoilers). Furthermore, despite being short, Ferrante has included an interesting generational story (which in turn is a play on the title) – essentially Leda does all that she can to escape her own upbringing, strives for something quite different, only to question what she has –

“…despite my breaking away, I haven’t gone very far.”

Which prompts a question that I have often considered – do we parent in the same way that we ourselves have been parented? I had this discussion with someone many years ago who vehemently claimed they were breaking the mould (whether they did remains to be seen) but I think for better or worse, we often repeat what we have observed growing up.

4/5 Unexpected and unnerving.

There are a few foods mentioned in this story, the most significant being fresh oranges.  To go with Leda’s seaside setting, try this refreshing orange granita from Grub Blog.


9 responses

  1. This is a thought provoking one. I’d like to think I take a realistic, laid-back approach to parenting, but I won’t know if that’s true until I am (and they are) older. I married and became a parent fairly young (ages 21 and 25, respectively) and I’ve really enjoyed it.

    I’m absolutely certain that I’ve broken the parenting standard that was set for me, but that’s not hard in my case. I am there for my children, they are feed, clothed, and loved. I don’t even yell (although there’s a lot of eye-rolling going on), except out of fear on occasion. I never want them to doubt my love and affection, so I make it a point to show it (plus they are boys and I’m trying to get away with as much affection – in public – as I can for as long as I can). If nothing else, growing up with some of the people that I did taught me to value kindness and tolerance above all else. My husband once asked me why I married him and I told him, quite honestly, that it’s because he was kind to me (and everyone around him). I don’t know that that’s quite what he wanted to hear, but that is the reason first and foremost (there are several others of course).

    • It was an incredibly thought provoking book. The first and the last books I read for the translation challenge were both about mothering, both amazing and both books I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.

      I can’t think of things that I do as a parent that are deliberately and consciously different to how I was raised. But there are things from my own childhood that I do do. All of that said, I always wanted an even number of children (and more than two, so it had to be four or six!) because my mum was the middle of three and has middle-child baggage.

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