I paid little attention to the insistent looks of men.

Troubling Love. by Elena Ferrante and translated by Ann Goldstein

This’ll be a short review, because unfortunately even after only a month or so I can already remember almost nothing about Troubling Love. Perhaps that’s the only review I need give it.

Ferrante though has been one of the big discoveries of the past year for a lot of readers. Joanna Walsh has championed her in the Guardian, and many blogs I follow have raved about her. I plan to give her another try, but I’d be very interested in hearing in the comments from anyone else who’s read this one or has thoughts on Ferrante more generally.


The novel opens with the narrator, Delia, remembering the death of Amalia, her mother. Amalia had been coming to visit but had never arrived. Later her body washed ashore; she had committed suicide on Delia’s birthday.

Delia’s relationship with Amalia had been a tangled one, as is true for many people with their parents. I loved this description of Delia tidying after each of Amalia’s visits:

I went through the rooms rearranging according to my taste everything she had arranged according to hers. I put the saltshaker back on the shelf where I had kept it for years, I restored the detergent to the place that had always seemed to me convenient, I made a mess of the order she had brought to my drawers, I re-created chaos in the room where I worked.

Before she died, Amalia made a series of incoherent calls to Delia. She said she was being held by a man; she laughed; she rattled off a string of obscenities (something characters do a lot in this book). When she was found she was naked except for a new and expensive bra, quite at odds with her usual clothes.

Amalia’s death makes little sense to Delia, not so much the fact of it as the facts around it. Why did her mother get off the train early? Who was the man she referred to? What happened to her normal clothes and a suitcase she had with her when she set off? Why did she have the high-end lingerie?

More strangeness soon emerges. Delia learns that her mother had been seeing someone; her neighbour says she was happy. Years before Delia’s father had been obsessed with the idea of Amalia’s infidelity. He had stopped her from going out and from dressing up. Was she now making up for lost time?

An elegant old man appears at Amalia’s apartment. He had been at the funeral too, where he had reeled off a litany of obscenities (seriously, this happens a lot in the book, usually with variations of that phrase to describe it). He has the missing suitcase, and trades it with Delia in return for a bag of her mother’s old underwear.

The old man is named Caserta. It’s a name Delia recognises from Amalia’s past; it’s a name Uncle Filippo, the only survivor of Amalia’s generation, still curses.

The setup then is similar to that in a crime novel. We have a death; a mystery; strange characters; old secrets. If there was a crime though there’s no suggestion it was murder. The mystery here is Amalia’s life, not her death.

Troubling Love is an intensely physical novel. Delia’s period starts during the funeral. It’s heavy and unexpected. She has to buy emergency tampons and head to a filthy toilet in a local bar to put them in. As an aside, I can’t remember the last novel I’ve read where a character buys tampons. Strange that something so normal is normally so ignored.

The body, a woman’s body, is here an ambivalent space. Ferrante focuses on sweat and blood and food and sex with fascination and disgust suffusing the narrative equally. Bodies, women’s bodies, both compel and repel. She’s particularly good on how men occupy, colonise is perhaps a better word, women’s physical space. Here Delia is on a funicular:

Women suffocated between male bodies, panting because of that accidental closeness, irritating even if apparently guiltless. In the crush men used the women to play silent games with themselves. One stared ironically at a dark-haired girl to see if she would lower her gaze. One, with his eyes, caught a bit of lace between two buttons of a blouse, or harpooned a strap. Others passed the time looking out the window into cars for a glimpse of an uncovered leg, the play of muscles as a foot pushed brake or clutch, a hand absentmindedly scratching the inside of a thigh. A small thin man, crushed by those behind him, tried to make contact with my knees and nearly breathed in my hair.

One of the most uncomfortable scenes of the book is where Delia has sex. She has never got any particular pleasure from the act; she has never orgasmed. Instead she just sweats, more and more, turning the bed into a near-literal swamp.

The missing suitcase, once returned, is discovered to be filled with lingerie. It’s in Delia’s size, as was the expensive bra Amalia was wearing when she died. Underwear, the most intimate of garments, is key here. As the trade with Caserta demonstrates early on, underwear is currency. Amalia died wearing underwear bought for Delia. It’s another thread of the current of intimacy and disquieting physicality running through the novel.

Amalia was more comfortable with the male gaze. Her marriage ended in jealousy and abuse years before her death. Delia’s father couldn’t accept his wife’s independence or that other men might look at what in his view belonged to him. She was an attractive woman full of life and easy charisma and he could never forgive her for existing beyond him:

Oh yes: for that, for her charm he punished her with slaps and punches. He interpreted her gestures, her looks, as signs of dark dealings, of secret meetings, of allusive understandings meant to marginalize him.

This was Ferrante’s first novel, and perhaps that shows. There’s something quite attractive about the structure of a crime novel being used for a book which is largely about offences which never involve the police – men’s control of women and the shaming of female physicality and sexuality. There’s some great language (“Amalia had the unpredictability of a splinter, I couldn’t impose on her the prison of a single adjective.”). There’s plenty to like here.

There’s plenty too though to be less excited by. There’s repetition, particularly with that imagery of the litany or stream of obscenities which comes up several times. There’s the use of that oldest of plot conceits, the family drama buried in the secrets of the past. There’s a faint whiff at times of melodrama. There’s the fact above all that a month later I can barely remember it, and had to check my copy to remind myself what happened.

Troubling Love then for me is not a great book, nor even close to one. It’s a mostly well written book with some good and uncomfortable ideas, but built on a platform which is perhaps a little too traditional in terms of story and which at times felt like it was trying a little too hard to shock. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

I do plan to read more Ferrante. There’s far too many great reviews of her to judge her on one book. I made a mistake though picking her first as my first, and there’s perhaps a reason this particular novel is one of her least talked about.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of. I did however find this excellent piece from Iowa Review which is worth reading and which makes some great points about the limits of the translation. Edit: Tony, on twitter, pointed me to his (more positive) review here which is worth reading, particularly as he puts this book in the context of her other works.


Filed under Ferrante, Elena, Italian fiction, Italy

20 responses to “I paid little attention to the insistent looks of men.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Interesting! I tend to find that universal glowing reviews actually put me off reading particular books, so the global praise of Ferrante has actually meant I haven’t gone near her. And I confess after your review any urge to read her has lessened even more…

  2. Oh dear! I have the same effect with universally glowing reviews actually. Tony’s is fairly balanced – he doesn’t gush but he doesn’t damn either.

  3. Those Europa Editions have fabulous covers…

  4. Don’t they just? This is a particularly good one. Somehow the empty but glamorous suit with an older fashion style fits the book perfectly.

  5. Very interesting review, Max. I have Troubling Love on the shelf, but it has been sitting there for over a year, and I’m not sure when I’ll be in the right frame of mind for it. I am a Ferrante fan, but I reached a point last year where I felt I needed to take a break from her books just to clear my head for six months or so. Her world is intense, visceral and at times very unnerving.

    It’s interesting you should mention a faint whiff of melodrama in Troubling Love (certainly at some points). Looking back, I wonder whether the same criticism could be levelled at The Days of Abandonment, a novel I thought extraordinary at the time of reading. I think Ferrante exerts enough control over the narrative to hold Abandonment together, but it is very powerful and claustrophobic. (You do feel as if you’re teetering on the edge of an abyss at one point.) It has held up in my memory though and I would still recommend it very highly.

    Of the Ferrante novels I’ve read so far, my favourite is My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels. The canvas is much broader with more space for the characters to breathe and develop. It’s also an excellent evocation of the city of Naples – its culture, inhabitants and dangers. I would be really interested in your opinion on it.

  6. Intense and visceral certainly fits here, particularly visceral. It’s very physical.

    I think melodrama is fine, when it comes off. It’s only when you notice it that it’s a problem really.

    My Brilliant is one I look forward to. I love Naples, so it’s definitely one I want to read. I may make it my next Ferrante, but it’ll be a while before I go back I suspect. Not forever, but a while.

  7. I can understand that. Based in your response to Troubling Love, I doubt whether I’ll be picking it up any time soon…

  8. *on (I really need to avoid commenting via my phone!)

  9. I’ll be honest here: I’ve avoided the trilogy/tetralogy so far, because family sagas are sooo not my thing AND because of the near-universal praise and buzz about it. I did like Days of Abandonment though.

  10. Tredynas Days

    I agree with Jacqui: tend to avoid the ‘hit’ names like Ferrante, Knausgaard: so many others to catch up on from the existing shelves. Enjoyed the review, Max. Funny how you forget some books so quickly, others linger like good perfume

  11. Sendra

    Very good point about melodrama. I’m searching for my definition of it. Extreme/unlikely/unoriginally loud events and too many of them? But I can think of many important books where that applies and as you said, you don’t notice them. Something about style, seriousness and the environment of setting, I guess. Like Kaggsy I’m often put off by universal praise. In truth, can’t quite defend that. Conversely, I’m put off by your negative review. You make Troubling Love seem both interesting and mundane. I suppose it can be both. Was it high expectations or inherent flaws? Have you read Tristram Shandy? I’m loving it.

  12. I’m also suspicious when a author/book has nothing but praise.

    I read Days of Abandonment and thought it was superb, riveting, intense etc, very very good.

    But My Brilliant Friend just didn’t work for me. It was good, and I enjoyed the first half, but then, well I don’t think it was badly written but I just didn’t care much. A lot of people I respect love this and the rest of the books in the series but I doubt I’ll read the rest.

  13. I’ve seen her books reviewed a lot and…it just put me off. It felt too dramatic to me.

    Strangely, only two of her books have been translated into French and none of them is available in paperback. It’s strange because a lot of Italian literature is translated into French.

    PS : “As an aside, I can’t remember the last novel I’ve read where a character buys tampons. Strange that something so normal is normally so ignored.” Most writers are male and I suspect, very uncomfortable with that precise topic. (ask around and see how many husbands buy tampons for their wives) And when the writer is a woman, I suspect she doesn’t want to be accused of being too “femaly” and lives that kind of stuff in a closet.

  14. I’ve been meaning to try the Neapolitan Trilogy which is about to add a fourth book. I liked The Lost Daughter BTW.

  15. I felt similar having finished this Max, and I agree with your overall take. I wasn’t as impressed as I thought (expected?) I would be, but there was enough in the book to lead me on (to Days of Abandonment, as it happens).
    Visceral is the precise word, which makes the books challenging. She is quite unrelenting as a writer, although I have a sense (possibly erroneous) that the Naples novels are a little more forgiving.

  16. Marina, I do wonder if for now the stand-alones are the way to go. Less commitment.

    Simon, definitely agree on Knausgaard, Bolano strikes me as another in that category. Of course, I type from ignorance, having read neither.

    Sendra, it’s the old truth, execution is everything. Haven’t read Tristram Shandy yet, but I do plan to. My wife was hugely impressed by it as I recall.

    Laurence, Days seems the one to go for. I don’t think anyone so far has said they didn’t like that one.

    Emma, if too dramatic is a concern then I’d avoid this one, as I definitely found it too dramatic. Something lower key would have been more effective in places.

    I’m reading at the moment Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles, which is a short story collection with fantastic elements. Some of her tales explore difficult issues about relationships with parents (for example), but even though they may include a woman who transforms into a standing stone or a sea-ghost haunting a young woman, they somehow still seem more rooted in real experience than at times this did.

    I think you’re right on the ps. Obviously I’m not calling for literature to embrace descriptions of every bodily function, but while the reasons are I suspect as you say it still somewhat stands out.

    Guy, your reading rate is much in excess of mine, so I suspect it’s a lower risk proposition. Days though seems the best liked from what I’m seeing here.

    Ian, thanks. I’m in a similar boat. There’s enough there that I’ll try another, but I wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped. Visceral, very much so.

  17. I’m keen to read Lucy Wood. There’s a novel too isn’t there?
    I have an Italian student at moment who reads a lot. I’ll ask her about
    Ferrante the next time I see her.
    Also: the covers. What the ….?

  18. Weathering I think, yes, I plan to read it in due course too.

  19. I haven’t read Troubling Love but I tried My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels tetralogy, and was unimpressed. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t interesting enough to make me want to read four fat novels to get the full story. It could be one of those series that builds in the telling, but it’s hard for impatient readers like me to get that far to give it a chance.

    I’ve been told that The Days of Abandonment is better entry-level Ferrante, so I’ve got that and will try it next.

  20. I know what you mean. A tetratology is a fair commitment. I need to be pretty sure my time’s going to be well spent. Days does seem the one to go with.

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