“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”
It’s a fine way to start a book. From its first pages, The Days of Abandonment—a slim 2005 novel translated from Italian—is a compelling exploration of frankness, unpredictability and unpredictable frankness. It is the same blithe detachment with which Olga’s husband announces his departure that Olga herself relates to us, the reader, the spiral of grief into which she descends, a spiral so severe as to approach madness.
Once past the suddenness of his announcement, Olga’s husband Mario proves himself to be an otherwise stereotypical soon-to-be-ex spouse: He has abandoned her for a younger woman, proves minimally sympathetic to the injustice of his decision, and becomes almost willfully detached not only from Olga but from their two children, who are old enough to understand their mother’s biting remarks about her defecting husband. Likewise, Olga’s tour through the emotions of the dumped is familiar to anyone who’s suffered through the sudden dissolution of a long-term relationship. Shock and anger give way to obsession and anxiety; depression sets in; small tasks prove monumentally overwhelming.
The elegant language with which Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym) details Olga’s fallout is—to my mind—a testament to the author’s experience with the subject. In reading DOA—and in having gone through sudden and significant breakups myself—it’s near impossible to imagine that Ferrante hasn’t in some capacity lived the story she is telling. Olga’s observations about even the most mundane details of post-breakup recovery are so on point as to be embarrassing, and one can’t help but reflect on similar behaviors from conscious uncouplings past: the mental pep talks, the mental dress-downs, the subtle needling of mutual friends for information, the impulse to call, sometimes to chew him out, sometimes to beg him to come back.
Don’t succumb, I goaded myself. Fight. I feared above all my growing incapacity to stick to a thought, to concentrate on a necessary action. The abrupt, uncontrollable twists frightened me. Mario, I wrote, to give myself courage, had not taken away the world, he had taken away only himself. And you are not a woman of thirty years ago. You are of today, take hold of today, don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip. Above all, don’t give in to distracted or malicious or angry monologues. Eliminate the exclamation points. He’s gone, you’re still here. You’ll no longer enjoy the gleam of his eyes, of his words, but so what? Organize your defenses, preserve your wholeness, don’t let yourself break like an ornament, you’re not a knickknack, no woman is a knickknack.
Olga’s struggle is as relatable as it is difficult to watch: It’s part “Someone Like You,” part “You Oughta Know.” And it is her stark inability to cope during this period that made the novel a logical choice for a book club focused on unlikable female characters. Which is a book club I joined recently, because there’s no greater way to spend a Wednesday evening than discussing the shortcomings of a fictional married couple with a dozen intelligent women over bottles of rosé. That’s how I’d prefer to spend all evenings.
Opinions at book club varied as to whether Olga’s behavior—which includes constant rudeness, the emotional and sometimes physical neglect of her children, and a brief but notable mental breakdown—makes her unlikable, whether, as I proffered at one point during the night’s discussion, she “should really get her shit together.” (I’m not the most sophisticated participant.) All of the women sympathized with Olga, which is to be expected: If my husband left me after 15 years so he could relive his 20’s with someone still in hers, you best believe I’d want near-endless compassion from my friends and family, if not society at large. In fact, by the time Olga confronts Mario and his new girlfriend in public, I am simultaneously bemoaning—”Oooh, don’t do it girl…”—and applauding the first well-deserved slap.
Like many dumpees, I remember my own Days of Abandonment well, if not with the same visceral intensity that drove me to ugly cry and drunk dial at the time. I imagine it to be a bleak period for even the strongest woman, a brief descent into your worst self, a regression made all the more frustrating by your seeming inability to control it. You don’t want to think about him, or to mentally rehash your relationship in pursuit of hidden signs, but you can’t not. At least it feels that way at first, when you’re constantly sobbing and can’t decide whether to drink all of the universe’s wine or eat all of its ice cream. In DOA, Olga’s inability to accept the sheer unfairness of her situation is a cynic’s reminder that anything can end, and anyone can let you down.
DOA is a beautiful little book, and reminded me at times of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, though Deraniyagala’s is a tragedy of much greater proportions. Both books speak to a fundamental injustice in the world: Whether or not you handle your affairs as inelegantly as Mario, the truth is that not everyone will be loved (or remain loved) by the person they love, and that horribly bad things will happen to good people. It’s a reality with which one is loathe to contend, and yet without it I daresay we’d lose a lot of great books. Including this one.
TITLE: The Days of Abandonment
AUTHOR: Elena Ferrante
PAGES: 188 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name
SORTA LIKE: Wave meets Heartburn
FIRST LINE: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”