Julie Christine's Reviews > The Days of Abandonment

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
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bookshelves: italy-theme-setting, contemporary-fiction, read-2015, best-of-2015

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

And so begins Olga's descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn't the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga's hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn't this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare's Polonius declares in Hamlet, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn't worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga's madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga's domestic drama.

Olga's recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante's Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author's own.

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario's mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter's hands with sewing shears; a child's forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes--to frame Olga's sanity. It's almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she'll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders
I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. ...For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

Most disturbing is the toll Olga's depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante's narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.
I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, ... Still I couldn't avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to die.

"What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is..." Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth- a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

Elena Ferrante's brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.
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Reading Progress

November 12, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
November 12, 2014 – Shelved
February 26, 2015 – Started Reading
February 26, 2015 – Shelved as: italy-theme-setting
February 26, 2015 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
February 27, 2015 –
page 53
28.19% "Olga might be losing her mind, but damn if I don't love a furious woman!"
February 28, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
February 28, 2015 – Finished Reading
March 2, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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Julie Christine Wow. Wow. I'm exhausted. Claire Messud's Nora pales in comparison to Elena Ferrante's Olga. I'm pretty well gutted about the dog.

message 2: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen She's horrified with her body at age 38!?!!?!? LOL I'd hate to see how she reacts when she's ACTUALLY decrepit.

message 3: by Debbie "DJ" (new) - added it

Debbie "DJ" Amazing review, Julie! Wow! Would love to read this, but I would absolutely lose it with the dog.

Julie Christine Carmen, yes, this 46-year-old did this chuckle at that. I was all, "Sweetheart, you just wait..."

Julie Christine Debbie, I actually hated the author for that. You just know from the beginning it's not going to go well for the dog.

message 6: by Joyce (new) - added it

Joyce Oh boy and oh wow! What a super review. I don't think any book has left me exhausted. Whew, glad you made it through and captured its essence so well.

message 7: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Wonderful review, Julie. But I was wondering if her madness (was it really temporary) did not fire the divorce, instead of being a result of it. Nevertheless it sounds like a riveting book and you brought it alive extremely well. Great review!

Julie Christine Margitte, that's a great point. Olga is the narrator and according to her, she was fine before Mario left her- the very model of the modern Italian housewife and mother. But we have only her perspective, so we'll never know. And that's one of the underlying themes, I think--the shame of women being so dependent on men for their security and identity...there's frequent reference to a woman from her childhood who lost her mind after her husband left her. Domestic dramas...

Sue Bridehead (A Pseudonym) I just finished this book. She makes references to spending most of her married life creating a smooth emotional surface that she presented to her family. I doubt she outwardly displayed madness before, but she certainly contained her rage and aggression, and that probably leaked through.

Julie Christine Sue Bridehead (A Pseudonym) wrote: "I just finished this book. She makes references to spending most of her married life creating a smooth emotional surface that she presented to her family. I doubt she outwardly displayed madness be..."
Such a powerful read, isn't it?!

Claudia I loved this book. Olga is so brilliantly evoked. I too honed in on that sentence about couples being a 'foamy mixture.' That's the kind of offbeat but insightful writing I love. By the by, it has some narrative parallels with my own novel - things don't go well for the dog in that, either!

Julie Christine Claudia wrote: "I loved this book. Olga is so brilliantly evoked. I too honed in on that sentence about couples being a 'foamy mixture.' That's the kind of offbeat but insightful writing I love. By the by, it has ..."

Oh No, not more dog sadness! :) Can't wait to read your novel, Claudia!

Yes, this is an outstanding character study. Elena Ferrante. Sigh.

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