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Review of Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment”

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ASU chapter.

“Existence is this, I thought, a start of joy, a stab of pain, an intense pleasure, veins that pulse under the skin, there is no other truth to tell.”

— Elena Ferrante

The stage is set with everything in its right place. The lunch is prepared, and without further ado, an unexpected and grievous announcement is made from across the table with a nonchalance rightly belonging to some stranger rather than that one dear person who shared with you yet another embarrassingly funny tale of his teenage self as a prelude to the unexceptional love making just a couple of nights ago. The familiar calmness abruptly gets replaced by uninvited chaos and the neat arrangement of a happy home appears to be the mocking backdrop of a black comedy where things are supposed to take several turns for better or for worse…

The template for the hot-blooded Italian best-seller “The Days of Abandonment” is familiar, in fiction and life. But the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare. A female rage novel written before ‘female rage novels’ were such a trend. I’ve said this before, but no one truly writes about motherhood/womanhood with Ferrante’s precision and vicious candor. 

Elena Ferrante employing a gripping narrative develops a combative atmosphere where hope, loneliness, and anguish are engaged in an aggressive rivalry to claim their influence in the life of Olga. Olga- the dreamy adolescent, a thoughtful woman, mother of two kids, and a writer driven by need instead of love now allocates a mere ten ordinary sentences to encapsulate her whole life which has been brutally impeded by the glaring title of ‘abandoned wife’. Abandoned not only by a husband but all those illusions that shaped her perceptions and gave way to a sedate persona that at once crumbled when came face to face with an undeserved misery.

The atmosphere of this book is far more powerful than the sum of each of its words. The shape of the telling fits the theme perfectly, and the honesty of Olga, the narrator, allows the reader to share in her experience, to look through every line, to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno.

Olga initially really loses it and goes through all of the stages of grief. First, she’s sad, constantly lethargic, and crying. When she takes the kids out to go shopping, she gets angry and leaves them behind. She then has a blinding rage that strikes hot; when she spots her ex-husband and the girl outside of a bank, she strikes him and tries to rip the girl’s earrings off. At the same time, the bills need to be paid and they’ve lost their telephone while the dog is poisoned.

While Olga’s voice is always painfully honest, I am clean I am true I am playing with my cards on the table, what strikes the reader is how the language of the narration changes as Olga’s state of mind changes. In the beginning, the writing is slow, thoughtful, and quiet, with all the necessary commas and periods. I had taught myself to wait patiently until every emotion imploded and could come out in a tone of calm, my voice held back in my throat so that I could not make a spectacle of myself.

What I liked about this novel is that it is unapologetically female. There are no slandered excuses for how she’s misbehaving and our main protagonist is allowed to wallow in her grief. She goes to the neighbor downstairs and tries to seduce him in a drawn-out and slightly uncomfortable sex scene. She sees herself as sexually undesired by her husband, leading to her downfall, which I found to be a direct reference to aging and how women can only feel useful in some contexts when men want them sexually.

As Olga begins to slip beneath the skin of her life, as she folds back her flesh to reveal her raw and vulnerable center, the language becomes raw, bleeding, piercing, hold the commas, hold the periods this is abandonment.

She, we, cannot survive like this, we think. Everyone needs a skin to protect them, and we read on faster, suffering alongside her, willing her to draw her edges together and sew them up with one of her mother’s darning needles so that we can feel comfortable and quiet again.

Once Olga begins seeing herself as a woman destroyed, she begins a downward spiral that includes hallucination, the terror of poison, and grim sexual self-abasement with her aging neighbor. Even worse, she finds herself with a man with whom she barely arouses any feelings. That scene makes this into a shift where Olga is seen as something more than a sex object. The neighbor doesn’t get an erection, which upsets her, forcing her to work harder for what she wants, but it’s from this moment onwards Olga no longer thinks about how she’s supposed to be sexy or attractive to men. This is the beginning of her closure, and while things continue to go to shit with the dog being poisoned, she still manages to climb out of the hole she’s created.

It’s also not her fault at all that this has happened. Her husband couldn’t keep it in his pants and had to chase a younger girl, and it shows that he won’t be any better when Olga notices at the end that he looks tired and like he’s gained weight. At the end of the day, this leads to a narrative that Olga is the redeemed ex-wife who, after originally falling apart, has now been able to become a better person. It’s a cliché story, one that we’ve seen again and again. Both the novel’s emotional and carnal candor are potent. Mario has destroyed her confidence, Olga says, as if he had wadded it into a ball and thrown it into a wastebasket. Now she loathes her physicality, “I who until four months ago had been only ambrosia and nectar.”

Olga does move beyond that initial raw phase, and the language follows suit, reflecting her new state of mind. As she begins to weigh up the cost of the years of marriage, what she has given, what has been taken from her, what she has renounced, and what she is left with, her voice has a dangerous calm to it. She speaks of cutting, of excising the past, I wanted to cut myself to pieces, and we read on, one hand covering our eyes even as we strain to take in every word, because in this book, every word counts, every word performs.

Olga’s story is not new but this is an original telling of it. Ferrante is unafraid. She is unafraid of confronting feelings, of calling things by their real names.

Abandonment’ is not a word that many of us might use easily when speaking of the break-up of a family. We might prefer to talk of a spouse having left the family home; we might prefer to think of the one remaining behind keeping his/her dignity; we might expect that the children would become the priority; we might see the one left behind holding everything together, children, home, work, yes, even finding time to walk the family pet. Ferrante says that this is not the way it happens, that something always has to give. In her version, that something is Olga’s center: it doesn’t hold. In her version, pain is not hidden behind a brave face: it shrieks to the heavens. In her version, it is inevitable that there will be an absence of sense, that there will be abandonment of normal living.

Olga is a nice person, kind and gentle but abandoned by her husband, who gradually and inexorably changes. The novel is meticulous, sometimes so detailed that it just hurts, in the description of these changes, her shifting moods, her omissions, her lack of security, and her losing integrity. Her days of abandonment. Firstly is an act of denying, that delusive it’s nothing, everything will be fine phase. And of course, it is not. So she slowly enters the more and more dark and bleak areas. Her changing moods, verbal exhibitionism, almost diarrhea of vulgar thoughts, obscene language, and imagined scenes of perverse sex are painful and very reliable though at times unbearable.

My thoughts while reading this book were diverse and conflicted. After each new chapter, I added one positive point, struck another negative remark, and held the ambiguous ones to tease the cynic in me. The writing is suffused with astute observations and a relentless energy that remains faithful to Olga’s erratic state of mind but it playfully demands understanding. Here’s a woman who discards her calculated sophistication and succumbs to a madcap behavior which at times displayed an almost caricatural representation of sentimentality- A grief so gaudy began to repel me. 

Soon it becomes clear that what is actually on display is an ingenious show-not-tell example of articulating the bewildered senses of an individual who feels utterly defenseless against the extremity of her desperation and simultaneously trying hard to analyze her situation by gathering subtle hints scattered all over her days of unexamined life.

But on the other hand, her anguish, her lips that miss being kissed, her body that needs to be caressed make you empathize with her and you can’t wait when Olga finally escapes from the abyss of her obsessive thoughts and deeds, that she wouldn’t share her lot with poverella, poor abandoned woman, almost mythical creature from Olga’s childhood, who finally drowned herself to death.

We all know such women like Olga, who gave themselves to their husbands or lovers so entirely, who gave their own body, heart, and mind not leaving to themselves any single thing to be named. To escape that state, pick up the pieces, relearn life, rename things, and define anew what counts as painful as previous falling into darkness and disintegration.

Perhaps this is a book Ferrante never aspired to write and this is a story Olga never wanted to live but these stories are like rippled reflections in the ocean of harsh truths that real lives are and one becomes their protagonist owing to that unpredictable stroke of destiny when our dreams never come true but our nightmares sometimes do.

Isys Morrow is a Junior studying English and is a writer at the Her Campus at ASU chapter. In their free time, they enjoys reading, writing, rating movies on Letterboxd, and trying new coffee shops. She especially enjoys walking her dog Ace in the summertime.