Basically the Neapolitan novels render this book completely obsolete. It’s like a crude test drive for the character of Elena.
Elena is called Olga in this novel and is the woman from hell. A kind of fantasy creation of how we might behave in our most self-indulgent, man hating and self-pitying incarnation. Essentially she’s an educated thirty eight woman who behaves like an adolescent crackhead. I could imagine Meryl Streep playing her in a film, except the film I saw would have been a comedy and Streep would have been brilliantly funny. And that’s maybe the problem. This novel should have been a comedy – it realises this a couple of times and then it’s very funny. But the tone and prose is so self-consciously pretentious and purple that I found myself laughing at the book rather than with it.
Basically this is the story of a woman who is left by her husband for a much younger woman. It’s a clichéd subject which again begs for some humour. Olga reacts in a clichéd manner – she falls apart – so clichéd that it might be funny if it wasn’t so over-written and so awkwardly and unconvincingly philosophical. If Olga runs a bath you know the bath is going to overflow. If Olga lets her dog off the leash you know something bad is going to happen to the dog. In other words this is a novel of relentless melodrama. Except the high-minded self-indulgent prose rarely recognises the necessity of digging out the comedy in melodrama. For the most part it takes all its melodrama seriously.
Here’s an example of the vaporous philosophical claptrap this novel abounds in – “Existence is this, I thought, a start of joy, a stab of pain, an intense pleasure, veins that pulse under the skin, there is no other truth to tell.” Banality dressed up as gravitas by purple prose.
All in all I got the sense of a writer still trying to find her voice, still learning how to construct sentences even. In a nutshell I don’t think this should ever have been published. It’s disconcerting when you read an early novel by an author you’ve come to love and find it thoroughly mediocre, or worse. It happened to me with Anthony Doerr as well. You end up thinking maybe your original enthusiasm was misplaced. I’m not going to read any more of the early Ferrante novels.