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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lost Daughter

Elena Ferrante

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To purchase The Lost Daughter

Title: The Lost Daughter
Author: Elena Ferrante
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 125 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Lost Daughter - US
The Lost Daughter - UK
The Lost Daughter - Canada
The Lost Daughter - India
Die Frau im Dunkeln - Deutschland
La figlia oscura - Italia
  • Italian title: La figlia oscura
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein
  • The Lost Daughter was made into a movie in 2021, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and starring Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well done, but disturbing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 3/1/2008 Martin Krumbholz
The New Yorker . 9/6/2008 .
La Stampa . 27/11/2006 Lorenzo Mondo

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die zentrale Frage, was im Sinne einer praktischen Vernunft im Menschenleben als angemessen, was als unangemessen zu betrachten sei, löst dieser Roman naturgemäss nicht; aber er stellt eben diese Frage, und er bettet sie mit grossem psychologischem Feingefühl in einen Kontext von tiefer Symbolkraft ein. Und er vermeidet jedes Klischee." - Martin Krumbholz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "[A] brutally frank novel of maternal ambivalence (.....) Although much of the drama takes place in her head, Ferrante’s gift for psychological horror renders it immediate and visceral" - The New Yorker

  • "La figlia oscura è dunque un romanzo sulla condizione femminile: le tensioni che possono insorgere nell'ambito del matrimonio, la consunzione della passione d'amore, i difficili rapporti con i figli, che sono di volta in volta peso e incentivo alla libera espressione dei sentimenti, al raggiungimento della maturità." - Lorenzo Mondo, La Stampa

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in The Lost Daughter, the forty-eight-year old Leda, acknowledges near the end of the novel: "I am an unnatural mother". She fails to live up to the widely-held maternal ideal, and that makes her a very difficult figure to like. Ferrante's skill is in writing a gripping tale around such a character -- and making this figure such a believable one, honest with herself and others, aware of many of her shortcomings and frustrated by them, but unable to act differently.
       It's not that Leda is, generally speaking, a bad mother. She seems to have done a decent job with both her daughters -- and in some respects, such as clearing out when the teenage girls wanted to have sex at home, was perhaps too indulgent. The girls, both in their early twenties, have now moved a continent away, joining their father in Canada, but they all still seem to more or less get along and remain in relatively close touch. But years earlier Leda did the unforgiveable and unimaginable.
       "What had I done that was so terrible, in the end", Leda wonders at one point -- but it is pointedly not phrased as a question. It can't be phrased as a question, because there would be only one response: what she did was very, very terrible.
       She has excuses:

I had been a girl who felt lost, this was true. All the hopes of youth seemed to have been destroyed, I seemed to be falling backwards towards my mother, my grandmother, the chain of mute or angry women I came from. Missed opportunities.
       Her act was supremely selfish, even though she also suffered for it. But she carried it through, for a surprisingly long stretch. And while afterwards they all played at being one big, happy family again -- and pretty much never spoke about what had happened -- it's clearly still a burden for them all.
       The Lost Daughter centres around Leda's summer-vacation, spent on the Ionian coast, where she rents an apartment. Among the others she sees on the beach are an extended family that includes the very young mother Nina and her small daughter, Elena. Nina is obviously also a girl who got married (and had a child) too young; as she eventually tells Leda:
     "I know nothing and I'm worth nothing. I got pregnant, I gave birth to a daughter, and I don't even know how I'm made inside. The only true thing I want is to escape."
       In Leda Nina has certainly found the right person to commiserate with her, and Leda is drawn to helping this daughter-figure. Alas, Nina is a daughter-figure, and Leda really is an unnatural mother .....
       Early on Elena, and her doll, get lost on the beach. Leda finds both, but only returns the toddler, leading to a major crisis as the child is inconsolable about this loss. Leda knows the trouble she is causing, and she seems to want to set things right, but there's always something that holds her back. Yes, there's something very self-destructive about her behaviour -- and she even seems to relish that, to some extent. She's believable, even painfully real, but she is not in the least sympathetic.
       It's because she means to help Nina, to show her the way, in a way, that Leda admits to Nina what she did those many years before; afterwards she's angry with herself for letting it out -- she says she never spoke of it, "not even to myself" -- but, of course, it's long time that she should have begun to try to come to grips with it. She doesn't, though. Not well. The first chapter of the novel, a postscript of sorts that takes place after she has left the vacation spot -- the rest of the novel is just an account of all that led up to her present situation -- she shuts down, not wanting to explain, claiming (to herself):
The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can't understand.
       The book does have her talk about these things, and in a way try to work them through, but it is noteworthy that the conclusion actually comes in this first brief chapter, and that there she ends in silence and failure.
       Ferrante's gradual build-up makes The Lost Daughter something like a psychological thriller; like all her novels it is brutally honest. Leda is not a bad person, but her failings -- and her willingness to act on them, entirely selfishly -- make it impossible to find her sympathetic. She may have her reasons (compare also the women in Ferrante's previous novels, and their parent-issues ...), but they also border on the pathologically hysterical:
Among my most dreaded fantasies was the idea that I could get smaller, go back to being adolescent, child, condemned to relive those phases of my life. I didn't start liking myself until I turned eighteen, when I left my family, my city, to study in Florence.
       Leda is interesting because she isn't very introspective, and acts without thinking (or thinking through). It doesn't make her any more sympathetic, but it again makes her more believable. Still, one would figure that a woman who makes a generalization like: "Males always have something pathetic about them, at every age" might at some point wonder whether she isn't the one with the skewed point of view .....
       Not a pleasant read, but compelling.

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The Lost Daughter: Reviews: The Lost Daughter - the movie: Elena Ferrante: Other books by Elena Ferrante under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of a popular Italian author.

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