Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter was first published in Italian in 2006 and appeared in the English translation in 2008. It follows after Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love. The Lost Daughter opens at night on the highway with the protagonist driving alone when she feels ill and has an accident. She regains consciousness in a hospital where her friends from Florence have come to rally round her, but she can’t really say what happened. “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand” (10). So begins this intriguing and troubling tale. Using the intimacy of the first person point-of-view, Ferrante has a way of drawing her readers in that few writers can rival. She writes of things we dare not say, some we dare not even allow ourselves to think. Evidently, I am not the only reader to feel this way. According to Booklist,
Ferrante can do a woman’s interior dialogue like no one else, with a ferocity that is shockingly honest, unnervingly blunt.
The Lost Daughter is about a divorced woman in her late forties who takes a summer vacation on the Ionian coast by herself. We soon learn that she has two daughters in their early twenties, but they now live with their father in Toronto, Canada. Once installed on the beach, she can’t help but notice a large and loud family that she identifies as Neapolitan. The beach attendant warns her that these are “bad people.” The protagonist also grew up in Naples, but now lives in Florence, where she teaches English literature at the university. She is fascinated by the beautiful young mother whose small daughter clings to her, as if for dear life. The daughter has a doll that she treats just as dearly.
Having read the first three novels in Ferrante’s tetralogy, I was struck by the family’s resemblance to Lenu and her husband and his family, only Lenu has a son, not a daughter. We also learn that the protagonist of The Lost Daughter was able to escape her early environment when, at eighteen, she left to study in Florence and readily embraced a new, middle-class identity, just as the fictional Elena does.
After a few days on the beach, the child, whom the mother calls Elena but the relatives Lenu, suddenly goes missing, so the protagonist immediately sets out to help find her. The protagonist, who remains nameless for over half of the book, recalls when she herself lost her daughter years ago. As she searches the beach, she soon finds the child who is sitting in the sand further along, crying for her mother. Elena is promptly returned to her mother, but the doll is now missing. Back in her rented apartment, we soon learn that the protagonist has inexplicably taken it. As she unwinds, she reflects on her life, on her children whom she abandoned when they were toddlers. Later, we find out that she ran off with an English professor whom she loved passionately because he valued her work, but after three years the passion subsided, so she felt the need to return to her children. This is when her husband took them and left for Canada.
Aside from the plot, much of the novella focuses on the protagonist’s ambivalence towards motherhood. Perhaps it is for this reason that many readers dislike the main character. We learn that her early marriage to a successful academic and the reality of motherhood left her feeling deprived of her own life. In addition, due to cuts at the university, her less important position was eliminated. She reflects on her mother’s traditional attitude toward the demands of child rearing, but as a modern woman cannot identify with her. It is here, when considering her own mother, that we learn her name, which is Leda. But the names of the characters frequently change due to the diminutives and the many variations that are given affectionately. However, that Leda is only named when she thinks of her maternal heritage suggests that this name is associated with her identity as a mother. As an individual, she remains nameless, not fully formed. Thus it seems that Leda is the lost daughter.
There is also a doll that is stolen early in My Brilliant Friend, and its role is significant as the person whom the children believe stole it is soon arrested for murder. However, by the end of the The Lost Daughter, Leda returns the doll and admits that she doesn’t know why she took it.
I was left wondering what the doll signifies, or rather what dolls in women’s fiction signify. They are certainly uncanny. One can think back to Ibsen’s A Doll House and more recently, Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. Evidently, more needs to be written about the role of dolls in literature.