The Lost Daughter

By Elena Ferrante, published 2006 (translated by Ann Goldstein)

This book has received new attention lately thanks to a film version released on Netflix, starring Olivia Colman and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The story features middle-aged Leda on a beach holiday, who becomes mildly obsessed with another vacationing family — particularly a young mother and her daughter, who trigger Leda’s memories with her own daughters. These memories are sometimes good, but are often bad, focused on her struggle as an “unnatural mother.”

During a recent Sway podcast interview, Gyllenhaal said:

But [Ferrante] so truthful about things that I think we’ve really been told we’re not allowed to think or feel, I mean, to the point where, in some ways, I didn’t even know I thought or felt these things until I read them expressed in her books.

But I found that experience, hearing these truthful things, I felt kind of electrified by even the most perverse things that were said out loud. I thought I felt comforted by that. Like, I’m not alone. And I think many people had that experience. Her books are flying off the shelves. But I thought it’s still kind of a secret if we’re all alone in our rooms, reading these things.

And I thought, well, what if you actually heard these things said out loud? And if it was in a communal space, like a movie theater, where you might even be sitting next to your husband or your mother or your child, and then the cat is really out of the bag, and there’s no putting it back in.

Indeed, what if we read these things in books, and hear them on films? Then can we finally say them out loud? Can we say, “I don’t want to have kids,” or “My kids are driving me crazy” or “I need time to myself before I snap”? Can we say this to our friends, our partners, our parents, our children?

In The Lost Daughter, Leda says and thinks many things that we might deem shocking. It begins small: “For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.” As they grew older, though, that responsibility didn’t entirely go away. “I wanted to be ready to cope with sudden requests for help, I was afraid they would accuse me of being what in fact I was, distracted or absent, absorbed in myself.” There are many other quiet observations like this, but the one that stood out most to me was, “I had wanted Bianca, one wants a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs.” Here Leda admits that cultural expectations and biology made up her decision to have children. But if that choice can be pinned only to these temporary urges, should it ever be acted upon?

I believe Gyllenhaal is absolutely right about the power of putting “subversive” ideas into art, and letting them trickle into real life. For too long we have watched and read a fairy-tale version of the mother-child relationship, and books like The Bell Jar remind us what little distance we’ve traveled in accepting non-maternal women. In some ways Ferrante’s novel is more forgiving than the film, but in others the narrator Leda is more fearsome. We can assume her sanity is slipping away but because the people around her are so slippery, too, it’s difficult to know for sure. We are left to watch the crippling fallout of a woman who bears the responsibility of motherhood without the desire for it. Five stars.

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