The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (review)

I’ve already reviewed My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s recent series of Neapolitan novels. The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel, was first published in Italy in 2002 and translated into the English in 2005.

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The Days of Abandonment is narrated by Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old woman originally from Naples, now living in Turin. She has been married to Mario for fifteen years, and they have two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. In a quietly devastating opening paragraph, Mario informs Olga that he wants to leave her:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink. (p. 9, Europa Editions)

At first, Olga is convinced that Mario isn’t serious; after all, this has happened before. Six months after the couple got together, Mario suddenly announced that he no longer wished to see Olga, only to return five days later claiming ‘there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense.’

Consequently, in the early stages of their separation, Olga continues to behave affectionately towards Mario ‘ready to sustain him in his obscure crisis’ as he returns periodically to visit the children. But Olga soon feels a sharp animosity growing inside her, a bitterness only heightened when she learns Mario has left her for another woman, and her demeanour starts to alter:

I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully. I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.

Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate to the few acquaintances who still tried coldly to console me that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut. I hated the idea that he knew everything about me while I knew little or nothing of him. (pg. 26)

In an effort to calm herself, Olga begins to re-examine her relationship with Mario in the minutest detail in an attempt to understand where she has gone wrong and why her husband has left. But it’s not long before her need to self-analyse gives way to feelings driven by resentment and rage:

A tangle of resentments, the sense of revenge, the need to test the humiliated power of my body were burning up any residue of good sense.  (pg. 48)

As Olga struggles to maintain a grip on her life, those around her bear the brunt of her frustrations; she strikes out at Mario, strangers who cross her path, and she comes perilously close to abandoning her children in the gardens of the local museum (near a statue of Pietro Micca):

And I began to shout that, if in their opinion I was no good, they should go to him [their father], there was a new mother, beautiful and smart, certainly from Turin, I would bet she knew everything about Pietro Micca and that city of kings and princesses, of haughty people, cold people, metal automatons. I screamed and screamed, out of control. (pg. 65)

And a few lines later:

Ah yes, I wished to wound them, my children, I wished to wound above all the boy, who already had a Piedmontese accent, Mario, too, spoke like a Turinese now, he had eliminated the Neapolitan cadences utterly. Gianni acted like an impudent young bull, I detested it, he was growing up foolish and presumptuous and aggressive, eager to shed his own blood or that of others in some uncivilized conflict, I couldn’t bear it any more.

I left them in the gardens, beside the fountain, and set out quickly along Via Galileo Ferraris, toward the suspended figure of Victor Emmanuel II, a shadow at the end of parallel lines of buildings, high up against a slice of warm cloudy sky. Maybe I really wanted to abandon them forever, forget about them, so that when Mario finally showed up again I could strike my forehead and exclaim: your children? I don’t know. I seem to have lost them: the last time I saw them was a month ago, in the gardens of the Cittadella.

After a little I slowed down, turned back. What was happening to me. I was losing touch with those blameless creatures, they were growing distant, as if balanced on a log floating away upon the flow of the current. Get them back, take hold of them again, hug them close: they were mine. (pgs 65-66)

From here, Olga descends into a deep depression and finds herself staring, falling even, into the darkest recesses of a terrible abyss. There is an excruciating scene in which she seeks sex with one of her neighbours, not out of any feelings of desire (in fact she finds this man quite repulsive) but out of a desperate need to negate the insult of being deserted by Mario.

Tormented by thoughts of Mario and his new life, Olga is unable to think clearly or concentrate on anything else. Confusion and disorientation reign as this woman’s previously ordered life crumbles around her. Having neglected to pay the bill she finds the phone is no longer working; ants infest her apartment, and there are a couple of scenes involving door locks which I’ll avoid discussing for fear of revealing further details about this section of Olga’s story.

I had only to quiet the view inside, the thoughts. They got mixed up, they crowded in on one another, shreds of words and images, buzzing frantically, like swarms of wasps, they gave to my gestures a brute capacity to do harm. (pg. 93)

While the title, The Days of Abandonment, clearly refers to Mario’s desertion of Olga, there’s also a sense that the phrase refers to Olga’s surrender to her own state of mind:

Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings. Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened…I didn’t know how to find answers to the question marks, every possible answer seemed absurd. I was lost in the where am I, in the what am I doing. I was mute beside the why. (pg. 107)

At various stages of her abandonment Olga is hounded by her memories of a once contented woman from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman whose husband ran away to Pescara for the love of another. This woman’s husband ‘had abandoned her, had cancelled her out from memory and feeling’ leaving her with nothing, not even her name; she became known as the ‘poverella,’ a poor woman torn to pieces by the loss of her husband. At one stage, Olga even questions her own identity as she struggles to separate reality from the imaginary: is she becoming the ‘poverella’ of her childhood?

Occasionally though, Olga regains a sense of proportion, a feeling that she can recover from this terrible experience and pull herself out of this place. Will she succeed? Well, that’s not for me to say, but if you read this exceptional novel, you’ll find out for yourself.

I was expecting The Days of Abandonment to be very good, but it is extraordinarily good. This is no-holds-barred fearless writing, a novel that delves deeply into the human psyche. Ferrante writes with devastating candour, exploring our perceptions of a woman, a mother with responsibilities, who finds herself face-to-face with a crisis. The story is shocking and violent in places, and the language explicit at times, but my word it feels necessary to convey the intensity of Olga’s story. A disturbing, but utterly unforgettable and compelling book, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein.

Biblibio and Tony Malone have also reviewed this novel, which I read as part of August’s Women in Translation #WITMonth, championed by Biblibio.

The Days of Abandonment (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

30 thoughts on “The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (review)

  1. naomifrisby

    Having read your review I’m even more eagar to read this. The wife/mother angle sounds just my thing and your quotations do make it sound ferocious. Ferrante’s so good, isn’t she? I’m tempted to binge read everything she’s written.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      This one is right up your street, Naomi, and I’d love to hear your take on it. ‘Ferocious’ is a great description; there’s a real sense of rage here, even more so than in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Yes, she’s terrific, and it won’t be long before I’m binging on Neapolitan novel number three.

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    Ths sounds extraordinarily powerful, Jacqui. Such rage and pain is hard to convey without melodrama but from the quotes you’ve pulled Ferrante – and Goldstein – carry it off beautifully.

    Reply
  3. hastanton

    I read this when it first came out here and I must confess it took
    Me a while to link the author to My Brilliant Friend as the style is so different. Brutally honest and v powerful. Great review

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. Yes, I agree the Neapolitan novels feel somewhat different to Days. Days seems tighter, more controlled in some ways (although the rage is so visceral), and brutally honest as you say. I believe Days is closer in style to Ferrante’s other early novels, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, although I’ve yet to read either of those two. Have you read them?

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like a fantastic character study.

    It also seems realistic as the sudden disintegration of a long term relationship can wreck so much havoc upon a person’s psyche. Though bI actually find that reading about such things to be a little upsetting I think that I would like this book.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, very much so, Brian.

      This book is quite shocking and distressing, and so it may not be for everyone. It is an exceptional character study, though; devastatingly candid and compelling.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      The Days of Abandonment stands alone, but I know the book you’re referring to – My Brilliant Friend, the first in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels. Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend are excellent books, both. They do differ somewhat in style, though; there’s more rage in Abandonment, and it’s a shorter, more tightly controlled and shocking book than My Brilliant Friend. MBF has the feel of a classic; it’s a broad, sweeping novel, and I loved the richness and subtleties in the characterisation and story. I hope you enjoy it, Fleur.

      Reply
  5. Bellezza

    I loved this book. It is the first, and only, Farrente I’ve read. Somehow she managed to create a woman in distress who was brave and believable.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Great to hear you loved this one, Bellezza. Yes, I agree with you on the credibility/authenticity of Olga’s character – a woman on the edge, yet totally believable. I was also struck by the little girl, Ilaria.

      Reply
  6. erdeaka

    oh wow, the book seems to have a very good idea and the writer seems to execute it very well. a story about an abandoned wife is always interesting because there must be a hole left in both her life and heart.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, Ferrante executes it brilliantly. It’s such a visceral and powerful book – a very candid portrayal of a woman in this situation with all emotions exposed.

      Reply
  7. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I remember reading Tony’s review and being intrigued, still waiting to start My Brilliant Friend, it’s been a slow reading month for me, haven’t even got onto any translated work yet! Great review and comments!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I hope you manage to carve out some more reading time soon. I’m looking forward to hearing/reading your take on My Brilliant Friend!

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Well, add me to the chorus of praise. A great review of what sounds like a great book. I have another Ferrante already, The Troubling Love, but I almost wish I had this one instead as it does sound fantastic, Seamus got it right in the first comment.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Max. Well, there’s certainly plenty to discuss when it comes to reviewing this book! I’ll join you in almost wishing you had Abandonment as I’m sure you’d appreciate it, and it would be fascinating to read your analysis. (As a slight aside, I was in the new Foyles on Monday and it was on display in their ‘staff picks’ section alongside Catton’s The Rehearsal.) That said, Troubling Love could be a great place to start with Ferrante as it was her first novel. I have a copy, but will probably leave it till next year as I feel the need to put some space between the two…

      Reply
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  14. heavenali

    Brilliant review. I have read three of the Neapolitan novels so far and pretty well loved them. Looking forward to the fourth now but I also want to read Ferrante’s stand alone novels. This will be right at the top of my list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali! I thought this was an excellent novel, really visceral and powerful and claustrophobic. It’s quite a tour de force. I’ll be curious to discover how you think it compares to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels!

      Reply
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