I have been reading recommendations for Elena Ferrante's 'My Brilliant Friend' all over the place recently, but ended up getting 'The Lost Daughter' from the library.
This is a most surreal book. It is the story of a woman, an academic, who is on holiday alone, spending her time reading at the beach. She finds herself observing a large and loud Neapolitan family who monopolise the beach and intrude on her solitude. She becomes fascinated with a young woman and her child who are part of this family; she watches them playing together, idealising the woman in her mind as some kind of perfect image of motherhood. Things take a strange twist the day the little girl wanders off and the woman helps to find her. The woman takes the child's beloved doll from the beach, and inexplicably chooses not to return it, instead cleaning it up and buying it new clothes. The book follows her over the next few days as she recounts her growing involvement with the family and in particular the young woman, Nina.
The whole story is also bound up with her telling the history of her own motherhood and her abrupt abandonment of her own daughters when she chooses to pursue her academic career. She appears to feel both guilty and not guilty for the decisions that she took. In fact the whole book is essentially about motherhood, and in some ways how the reality of women's experience conflicts with their expectations and the image society has of it.
At the start of the story she announces:
"When my daughter's moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn't upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitely brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them." (p.10)
She confirms the initial reaction on the next page, describing her reaction to telephone conversations and requests from her daughters:
"I did what they asked, reacted in accordance with their expectations. But since distance imposed the physical impossibility of intervening directly in their lives, satisfying their desires or whims became a mixture of rarified or irresponsible gestures, every request seemed light, every task that had to do with them an affectionate habit. I felt miraculously unfettered, as if a difficult job, finally brought to completion, no longer weighed me down." (p.11)
This contrasts so sharply with the experience she describes later. As they search the beach for the lost little girl she recalls the time she lost her own daughter Bianca at the beach:
"Bianca was crying with they found her, when they brought her back to me. I was crying, too, with happiness, with relief, but meanwhile I was also screaming with rage, like my mother, because of the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles, and with my free arm I dragged my firstborn, yelling, you'll pay for this, Bianca, you'll see when we get home, you must never go off again - never." (p.42)
She befriends a young man, Gino, an attendant at the beach, and finds herself admiring him as if from the perspective of her daughters, and again, she reflects back on the responsibilities of motherhood:
"But I loved them all, my daughter's first boyfriends, I bestowed on them an exaggerated affection. I wanted to reward them, perhaps, because they had recognised the beauty, the good qualities of my daughters, and so had freed them for the anguish of being ugly, the certainty of having no power of seduction. Or I wanted to reward them because they had providentially saved me, too, from bad moods and conflicts and complaints and attempts to soothe my daughters: I'm ugly, I'm fat; but I, too, felt ugly and fat at your age; no, you weren't ugly and fat you were beautiful; you, too, are beautiful, you don't eve realise how people look at you; they're not looking at us, they're looking at you." (p.51)
She tries, in her recounting of the history of her motherhood, to disentangle the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship, something that is both a bond and a growing need to be separate. She thinks about how she watched Nina and her daughter 'mother' the doll together, and how distraught the child has become with its loss; this doll, that she stole from the beach, then takes on this somewhat symbolic quality. There is an element here of her needing somehow to make amends:
"Poor creatures who came out of my belly, all alone now on the other side of the world. I placed the doll on my knee as if for company. Why had I taken her. She guarded the love of Nina and Elena, their bond, their reciprocal passion. She was the shining testimony of perfect motherhood. I brought her to my breast. How many damaged, lost things did I have behind me, and yet present, now, in a whirl of images. I understood clearly that I didn't want to give Nani back, even though I felt remorse, fear in keeping her with me. I kissed her face, her mouth, I hugged her as I had seen Elena do. She emitted a gurgle that seemed to me a hostile remark and, with it, a jet of brown saliva that dirtied my lips and my shirt." (p.62)
She describes the build up to the moment of leaving her daughters, about the conflict between her intellectual desires and the demands of motherhood:
"They stood in front of me waiting, they assumed the poses of cool and elegant little ladies, in their new dresses. All right, I said, took the orange, began to cut the peel. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colours, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me with expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which come from mine. I finished peeling the orange and I left. From that moment, for three years, I didn't see or hear them at all." (p.102)
A very intense little book, fraught with deep seated emotional issues. Although, right at the start she claims to be relived of the responsibilities of motherhood, something that I have been going through in the last year or so, you find of course that the weight is never quite lifted; being a mother changes the way to look at and interact with the world in all sorts of subtle, and not so subtle, ways, and thoughts of your children are never far from the surface. It is exquisite in its honesty and tackles something that I am sure all mothers experience, a quiet yearning, that can be momentary or ongoing, for the life you might have had instead.