Author, Book review, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Troubling Love’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 139 pages; 2006. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Reading Elena Ferrante’s debut novel Troubling Love is like stumbling into a dark, oppressive world of mother-daughter relationships, misogyny, domestic violence and grief.

Sometimes it’s hard to know which way is up because the story melds past and present so effectively. And the daughter — 45-year-old Delia — who narrates the tale looks so much like her mother that she often imagines they are one and the same person.

The book, which was first published in 1999, opens in dramatic style:

My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno. […] My mother had taken the train for Rome two days earlier, on May 21st, and never arrived.

This gritty, detective-like tale is told from Delia’s perspective. She’s an independent woman who lives in Naples and makes her living as a comic strip artist. The eldest of three daughters, she has little to do with her younger sisters, who are married and busy with their own lives in different cities, and is estranged from her father who had been separated from her mother for more than 20 years.

The Europa edition, published in 2022

When she gets news of her mother’s death, she begins a quest to discover what happened. She wonders whether she had succumbed to foul play or died accidentally or by her own hand. The first clue is a bewildering phone call that her mother made on the night she was supposed to be in Rome:

My mother [Amalia] said in a calm voice that she couldn’t tell me anything: there was a man with her who was preventing her. Then she started laughing and hung up.

As Delia traces her mother’s last known movements, she’s drawn into the most intimate aspects of Amalia’s life. Why was she wearing an elegant new bra (and nothing else) when her body was found? Why is all her old tattered and mended underwear in a half-full garbage bag in her bathroom? Why is there a man’s smart blue dress shirt in her bedroom? And who was the man she was referring to when she made that call?

To determine the answers to these questions Delia embarks on a journey through the claustrophobic streets of Naples and into her mother’s unhappy past. Along the way, she’s forced to confront her own painful childhood in which she regularly saw her father beat up her mother, where his need for coercive control made her dress shabbily “to placate the jealousy of my father” and where he often accused her of dalliances that never occurred.

A bleak world

The book treads some dark territory, highlighting how women cannot be their authentic selves when living in a violent, patriarchal society, and most of the male characters are ugly, menacing and deeply misogynistic. Sometimes it feels heavy-handed, almost as if everyone in the story is a caricature — even Delia seems unknowable.

But the cinematic force of the prose pulls the reader along into a bleak world where separating facts from lies becomes increasingly more difficult. Are Delia’s recollections of the past reliable, for instance, and how can a child possibly know every aspect of a parent’s adult life?

There’s a dark secret at the heart of Troubling Love that comes like a sucker punch to the stomach, making this a truly memorable and astonishingly powerful first novel.

13 thoughts on “‘Troubling Love’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)”

    1. Yea, I’ve been borrowing them from the library. I didn’t like the first book in the quartet and didn’t bother reading the rest. But I know the Europa Editions publicist in London and she’s been telling me for YEARS that I would like Ferrante’s other work … and she’s right, I do like it. But is is VERY bleak. I wouldn’t want to read too many all at once…


    1. When you say you’re not a Ferrante fan, do you mean you didn’t like the Neapolitan quartet? Because I didn’t like that either … in fact, I only read the first and disliked it so much I didn’t bother with the other three. But I’ve read two of her standalones now (I reviewed The Lost Daughter) earlier in the year, and liked them a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, fair question. Yes, I was referring to the quartet, which I had the same experience as you with. But I also didn’t get on with The Lying Life of Adults. So we’ll see. I’m prepared to give her another go.


        1. Ah, I think we might have had this conversation before… mind you, having just looked up The Lying Life of Adults it doesn’t sound like something I’d like and it also sounds a bit different to her other works, which are more about women grappling with motherhood and relationships (with parents, lovers, husbands etc). I think I want to read Days of Abandonment next… someone who knows my tastes says I would probably like it. We’ll see.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked The Lost Daughter a lot, which is why I was happy to stumble upon this one in my local library. I can’t say I “enjoyed” it because it’s too dark to be classified as enjoyable, but I’m keen to read more by her now. I thought this was excellent.


        1. Ah, fair enough. I don’t think she’s an author to binge because she deals in rather bleak subjects. At least this book was less than 150 pages and only took an afternoon to read.

          Liked by 1 person

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