Ferrante’s narrator, an English literature teacher named Leda, appears first in a hospital room after a car accident. She wakes to find her two daughters and husband in from Canada to look after her. She remembers not the car accident but her mother warning her about rough sees and red flag, an ominous snapshot that will expand into a retelling of the previous weeks. How Leda went to the Ionian Sea for a vacation. How she met a Neapolitan family, including a young mother and daughter. How mother and child gave her pause to think about her uneasy maternal instincts; to wonder why she once walked out on her husband and children; and to conclude that despite a good career some part of her is empty, broken, dead.
Leda’s recollections are emotional paper cuts. The small turns large; the banal becomes sinister. Strip away the day-to-day and you have the menacing portrait of a repressed and depressed child-woman whose beach vacation evolves into a voyeuristic nightmare that includes a stolen doll and doses of self-loathing. All Ferrante’s characters are lucid drowners, but Leda is particularly unnerving. She’s less like a swan than insect, or even a doll; something animate only in passing, more prone to coughing fits than kisses. Even memories of her daughters as infants comfort her but fall short on hope.
Ferrante’s superbly chiseled novel is the humbling of a woman who once saw herself as a “shining tile in the mosaic of the future,” but has since turned “distracted or absent, absorbed,” aware of but unable to heed red flags. The lost daughter could be doll, child or mother, but only Leda is truly without bearings.