This book was recommended to me as an example of how to show characters’ emotions effectively, something I struggle with. It’s the story of a woman whose husband abruptly abandons her for a younger woman, leaving her adrift and with two children to care for. The cad!
She goes through stages of pain, from disbelief, certainty that it’s just a temporary phase, to rage and even violence. The first 73 pages of the book are quite gripping in describing all that. Afterwards however, she becomes deeply depressed and filled with self-loathing. She acts irrationally, neglects her children, and can’t concentrate.
In the end, she finds her feet again and enters into another relationship with a man, a predictable but unsatisfying ending that reminds us every fish needs a bicycle.
I enjoyed the first 70 pages or so, learning about the character and watching her reactions to the great injustice, but after that, when she goes depressive and a little insane, I lost interest. When somebody is “crazy,” anything can happen, because, well, they’re crazy. Causal sequencing is out the window and any event is as probable as any other because nothing follows from anything. I don’t find that interesting reading.
What about the idea that this book is an example of effective emotional description? Well, there too, I have to say, I was disappointed. The author simply names a lot of abstract emotions and mental states: “I was sad; I was confused; I was angry.”
I can do that. What I was looking for was something more subtle. Furthermore, the author doesn’t even account for these cognitive and emotional labels. The emotion or thought just comes upon the character of its own accord, without explanation.
“The suspicion soon became a certainty. He wanted to help me accept the necessity of our separation; he wanted it to be me who said to him: you’re right, it’s over. But not even then did I lose my composure. I continued to proceed with circumspection as I always had before the accidents of life. The only external sign of my agitation was an inclination to disorder and a weakness in my fingers and the more the anguish increased, the harder they found it to close solidly around things.” (p 17)
To my eye, this is just a report of mental and emotional phenomena, with no connecting tissue. This happened, then that happened, for no reason at all. The whole book is like that.
The author is more effective in evoking moods of horror and despair, and she does that by describing body functions and body fluids in detail, on the assumption that most readers are horrified by display of body products. I’m convinced that Ferrante had compiled an exhaustive list of all possible body products, because most of them are mentioned, from vomit to diarrhea and everything in between. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
And yet even listing body parts and products doesn’t strike me as a very effective way to express emotions. How does one express emotions in a sophisticated way? My feeling is that it’s best done indirectly, in dialog and interactive behavior, but I couldn’t spell out the principles.
So for now, I still struggle to effectively express my characters’ emotions.
Ferrante, Elena (2002/2005). The Days of Abandonment. New York: Europa Editions (188 pp.).