A woman finds one day that her husband is leaving her. She's 38; they have two young children and a dog. The other woman is a 20-something the couple has known for years. At first, Olga, the scorned wife, thinks her husband might be having a passing spell of some sort. But soon enough it's apparent that it's permanent, that she's alone.
The book follows her descent into temporary madness, during which her life as well as those of her children is at risk. She sinks into a kind of sexual and physical morass, a loss of dignity from which one would think would be impossible to recover. The language is raw and unadorned, and I've heard that the original Italian is even rougher than the English translation. Olga's desperation and pain and anger and fright is hard to look at and hard to look away from. Early on, she confronts her husband, who wishes she wouldn't be so dramatic, so difficult:
Speak like what? I don't give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I'm supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?...With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed! However, in order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children, I'm supposed to use clean language, I'm supposed to be refined...This kind of thing works well in novels because it's cathartic for the reader, but of course in reality she'd be locked up for some of the things she does and says. It's not a revenge fantasy- she takes it all out on herself and the kids which are like extensions of herself, and the poor dog, a symbol of the whole family- but it's still violent, psychically and psychologically. Nevertheless it's an incredible book that would certainly stimulate a lot of conversation and thinking about what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother. Olga is tough on her kids; she's not a sentimental mother and she's in the throes of a major upset, as are they. The whole family is in chaos. She hits bottom, but then she comes back up enough to see the daylight and a way out.
So yeah, I really enjoyed this but in a way it was like reading a particularly gritty crime novel, one that you can't put down even when it's ripping you apart. Maybe we need a new category for Ferrante's books, domestic thrillers. Or something. She's got a new book coming out from Europa in the fall- watch for it, and read this in the meantime.
This is my 11th book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.