The Days of Abandonment.

Before Elena Ferrante wrote her bestselling, critically acclaimed Neapolitan Novels – and long before her true identity was outed by a man who decided she didn’t have a right to pseudonymity – she wrote a few other less-known novels that presaged many of the themes of the tetralogy that made her name. One of those, The Days of Abandonment, is a slim novel that overflows with the rage of a woman whose husband has left her and their two kids to shack up with a much younger girlfriend, showing her declining mental state in the face of this betrayal. It’s a primal display of feminist indignation, and given how worthless her husband appears to be, rather satisfying in a perverse way.

Olga and Mario have been married for about 16 years, with two kids, and although they’ve had the normal vicissitudes of any marriage of that length, she’s floored when he announces he’s leaving. He gives no reason, and seems callous in his disregard for the family. At first, she thinks he’ll come back, and manages to hold herself together to a reasonable extent when it feels temporary. When it becomes clear that he’s not coming back, and she learns that he’s left her for an acquaintance about half her age, she spirals out of control, to the point where she can’t take care of herself or her kids as her rage at this treason expands to fill every available space.

While there are specific scenes that give the audience some cheap satisfaction – and I’m not going to lie, when she sees Mario with his girlfriend and tries to beat the shit out of him, I enjoyed it – the power of this narrative comes from her internal cycling. Olga gave everything up for Mario, who was manipulative and controlling enough to deny her any chance at a career, who put his own career ahead of any of her interests, and who now has saddled her with sole responsibility for their two kids. She built an adult life around him, never anticipating that he might pull the rug right out from under her like this, and when he first returns after leaving, he has the temerity to lie about his reasons and to try to paint himself as a sort of victim. Her rage is raw and uncomfortable to watch, but it is entirely justified.

Olga and the kids eventually end up unable to exit their apartment because of a problem with the new locks on their door, installed after Mario left, although given Olga’s deteriorating state of mind, I wondered if their imprisonment was in her head or merely metaphorical. Other scenes are clearly real within the narrative but no less shocking; Olga’s failed tryst with a neighbor reeks of desperation and debasement, although it provides the first nudge that allows the novel’s conclusion – which isn’t as dark as I expected – to stand.

Mario is a joke of a man; husbands cheat, wives cheat, couples divorce, but how Mario cheats and leaves and just ignores his kids for weeks is so callow that you can’t see any redeeming qualities in his character, and he further squanders this by taking something from the apartment without Olga knowing. So it’s really Olga’s narrative, and Olga’s chance for character growth, and Ferrante sells it. If you want to convince a young woman not to center her entire life around a man, this is probably the book to do it.

Next up: I’m halfway through Dan Vyleta’s dystopian novel Smoke and enjoying it tremendously.

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