In this latest from the pseudonymous Italian Ferrante (Troubling Love, 2006, etc.), a middle-aged woman spends her summer vacation meditating about motherhood.
Leda was born and raised in Naples, but she didn’t feel happy until she escaped at 18 to study in Florence. For her, Florence is a symbol of culture and refinement, while Naples is loud and crude. Now 47, Leda is a university teacher in Florence, long separated from her husband Gianni, another academic, who emigrated to Toronto; her grown daughters, Bianca and Marta, recently joined him, but they stay in close phone contact with their mother. Leda’s summer rental is near the sea in an unspecified town. On the beach she observes an attractive threesome: A young mother (Nina), her small daughter (Elena) and the girl’s doll, with which the pair play. They are part of a larger group of Neapolitans who are sprawled out on the beach. When Elena disappears, Leda finds her and returns her to her grateful mother, but then steals her doll. What’s the reason for this “opaque action”? Does she want to forge a connection to the family, or tap into her own childhood memories? It’s a puzzle; not an interesting one, but there it sits, an indigestible lump. Far more interesting is Leda’s confession, to these total strangers, that she once abandoned her daughters for three years, leaving them with her overworked husband. What triggered her departure was a London academic conference where she was lionized by a professor, who would become her lover, and felt an intoxicating sense of self. Eventually she realized being a mother was her most significant fulfillment. Freedom versus responsibility: This tension underlies Leda’s behavior and ambivalence toward her daughters, which continues to the present. The young mother Nina is Leda’s sounding-board, but Ferrante fails to integrate Leda’s soul-searching with the problems of the fractious Neapolitan family on the beach.
Does little to illuminate a familiar conflict.