I have multiple ways of selecting books for this section of the blog.
As you may already know, the only rule I follow is that the Italian books I write about here must be available in English as well because I want to give people who are interested in Italian literature the chance to enjoy interesting books even if they cannot read Italian.
Other than that, I pick books for different reasons. I frequently check the websites of publishing houses to see if one of the Italian books I have read and liked is available in English (there’s one that is about to be published in English and I can’t wait because it is one of my favorites!!!).
Sometimes I pick a title because I know that it has been translated into English and I find it a good excuse to read a new book (it’s for work, you know). Some other times there is something special about the book that strikes my attention.
This is exactly what happened with the book I selected today. A while ago, when the Oscar nominations were announced, I saw that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, which was nominated for a few awards, was based on a book by Elena Ferrante. Why not read the book then?
La figlia oscura (available in English as The Lost Daughter, translated by Ann Goldstein) was first published in 2006, before the huge success of her Neapolitan quartet. The book tells the story of Leda, a 48-year-old teacher who decides to spend her summer holidays on the Ionic coast. Her daughters have moved to Canada to live with their father, so she is alone and takes that opportunity to spend some time by herself.
She rents an apartment in a small seaside village and divides her time between the beach and some work on her academic projects. At the beach, she meets a big family coming from Naples and is especially fascinated by two members of that large group of people: Nina, a young mother, and her daughter Elena.
While at the beach, the woman watches the actions of the family group from afar, focusing especially on the relationship between the young mother and her relatives. Watching Nina interact with her daughter and with the rest of her family reminds her of her own motherhood and this gives way to a series of reflections on her behavior as a daughter, mother, and wife.
So the present action is frequently interrupted by flashbacks in which the lady remembers her mother and the relationship she had with her or thinks about what type of mother she has been – and currently is – for her daughters. She watches the life of a young girl unfold in front of her and this makes her think about when she was young and ponder the choices she has made in her life.
Nothing really happens in this book and it’s basically a long reflection on the role of women as mothers, wives, and daughters. While looking at the lives of others and interacting with them, the narrator reflects on what her life has been and thinks about her past actions and the mistakes she has made.
This is a very introspective book, so if you are looking for a powerful story or a lot of action, this is not the book for you. But if you like books that make you reflect on life and human behavior in personal relationships, I really think you’ll like this book. La figlia oscura was written before the Neapolitan Novels and some of its themes will be further analyzed in the tetralogy.
Regarding the writing, the language is really beautiful and elegant, as you may expect from Elena Ferrante, but it might be quite a hard read if you read the book in Italian, especially for the choice of certain words. If you are reading the book in English and maybe want to see the movie too, I’d recommend this interesting article (it contains spoilers!) about the English translation and the movie adaptation.
Have you read Elena Ferrante’s books, apart from the Neapolitan Novels? Which one is your favorite?
If you are looking for interesting ways to practice your Italian daily, I’d suggest you check my program called Giorno dopo giorno, a daily Italian practice.
If you sign up to Giorno dopo giorno, you will receive an email every other day for 365 days. Each email will contain a prompt, a little exercise, something to watch, read, listen or something that will gently force you to practice your Italian every day, making it part of your daily routine.