The Lost Daughter

People who read voraciously will tell you the book is always better than the movie. 

I take it one step further by requiring my children to read the book before they watch the film adaptation, a rule I usually follow myself.  But when I watched The Lost Daughter on Netflix, I did not realize the story came from a novel of the same name by Italian author, Elena Ferrante.  Fascinated, if slightly unsettled by the film, I did some research after viewing it and obtained the book. 

The movie touches on nearly every single note of the book, something that cannot be said for most film adaptations.  Even nuanced subtleties are included.  It is a book lover’s dream. 

Both are a conflicted mother’s nightmare. 

The main character, Leda, is a conflicted mother. 

With the main line of the plot centering on Leda’s solo beach holiday, one might assume that’s all behind her – but as Ferrante so deftly proves, the mother/child bond is one that pulls a thread through lives, years, generations. 

Leda’s holiday at the shore is a celebration; not of her daughters’ departure, but of her independence, of the absence of obligation.  Yes, she brings a bag of books to the beach to prepare for the upcoming year’s classes, but she “carried a wicker chair out to the terrace, and sat for a while to watch the evening descend on the sea” as her first act upon arrival, something she never would have been able to do when “for years every vacation had revolved around the two children.”

Leda enjoys one supremely relaxing day at the beach – before her past, in the form of a large Neapolitan clan, blocks her path to the water.  The group, both large in size and attitude, whose continual return to this same spot inspires a sense of ownership in them, reminds Leda of the extended family of her childhood from which she fled.  She remembers her mother’s abhorrence and yet ultimate adoption of their crude and violent ways.  The interactions of a young mother and daughter make Leda reassess the bonds she had with her own daughters. 

In an expert weaving of past and present, one mother/daughter pairing to another, Ferrante explores how polarity and magnetism can exist at the same time within maternal bonds: motherhood vs. selfhood, generational transference and connection, love vs. duty. 

A bedraggled doll covered in beach sand becomes a character as real and large as any of the humans.  She is the love Leda needs from her childhood, she is the care Leda aches to give her own children freely, she is the unquestioning fragility of the mother/child bond. 

Conflicted mothers want to know that walking away, that tending to their own needs and desires, though viewed as monstrous by the outside world, is worth the internal validation.  Leda’s mother threatened to do so many times (“You will never ever ever see me again”) yet never followed through.  Leda made a point to never utter those words, but actually did walk away.  Now the young mother Nina laments how “your heart shatters: you can’t bear staying together with yourself and you have certain thoughts you can’t say.”  She believes it will pass, comforted by the fact that Leda returned.  Yet, Leda answers, “With my mother it became a sort of sickness.  But that was another time.  Today you can live perfectly well even if it doesn’t pass.”  Ultimately, Leda cannot offer young mothers a satisfying response.  

Leda herself hasn’t found a solution.  Years after her own disjointed upbringing, a strangled happiness in motherhood and a thwarted success in academia – she finds herself drawn to the very things from which she was running.  Closing herself off ultimately opens her to the dangers of these present-day manifestations. 

Both the novel and film treatments of The Lost Daughter come across as haunting and unnerving.  There is an undercurrent of threat throughout: of loved ones leaving, of missed opportunities, of loss and bodily harm.  Sometimes the threat isn’t even apparent; there is just the feeling of dread.  There is a meditative melancholy to this story, much in keeping with the heavy machinations of life and communion Leda carries with her. 

At times, this story is even esoteric.  Given the central question at its heart – can a woman attain selfhood and motherhood in the same lifetime – this is the perfect paradigm.   It has haunted three generations in just this story and countless women throughout the world.  There is no clear answer.  There are many iterations of the lost daughter. 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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