In January I went to Barcelona alone on vacation and took Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment with me. I knew little about Ferrante other than she is a mysterious figure in Italian literature, and that few people know her real identity. That, perhaps more than anything else, intrigued me, and seemed appropriate for my solo journey.
It was a bittersweet trip. I was supposed to travel with a friend for her 40th birthday – she had always dreamed of going to Barcelona, and had a lot of the trip planned out for us – but her mother fell very ill at the last minute, and so I ended up going by myself, on what felt like someone else’s vacation. It was nice to be in the sunshine during the month of January and there is much to admire about Barcelona, but I was sad for my friend, and for her mother, and a little sad for myself because I felt lonely, and then it was suddenly not that much of a stretch to start thinking about how I was going to die alone, you know, someday, and then I felt guilty for feeling sad when it was clear only my friend and her mother were the ones who were allowed to feel that way. So not only was I on a trip but also on a head trip as well. (Congratulations me.)
And so it was perfect to sink into the dark, blunt lunacy of the book’s narrator, Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two who has recently been abandoned by her husband. In short order, she starts to fall apart. She swings wildly from self-pity to depression to anger and back again. She obsesses about her ex-husband’s sex life. She curses a lot, and is occasionally violent. She acts irresponsibly toward her children. She would almost be unlikeable, but the writing is so lucid and intense and funny that it is impossible not to live inside her head and be sympathetic to what she is going through. The rage she felt was deeply satisfying, and the climactic moments of the book made me sweat with worry. “I had to react, had to take charge of myself,” Ferrante writes. “Don’t give in, I said to myself, don’t crash headlong.” I felt clean when I had finished the book. I felt relieved. It is a book that gives you perspective.
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