Entering the story of “The Days of Abandonment,” author Elena Ferrante drops us right into the protagonist’s pain, and does so with a detachment that sets up the woman’s emotional state. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.”
Masterful control of narrative
Let’s examine this first sentence from the hand of an author who is in complete control of her narrative and kind to her readers, even though she is about to take us into the depths of the narrator’s despair. With calm clarity, Ferrante places us in time in this domestic drama: “One April afternoon, right after lunch…” Nothing could be more ordinary. The repeated “after” propels us forward. This is a story about what’s coming next. We can’t hold onto the past any more than the narrator can, though she tries in vain to do so. She gives us the reason for what will be the narrator’s unraveling: “my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Already we sense narrator’s out-of-body response to the news: “He did it while we were clearing the table”—as if the crisis were just another dish to wash. We learn later how much she has given up to be wife and mother and how little self-identity she still claimed, even before her husband abandoned her.
Punctuation plays a role. The semicolon separates her husband from the children and the dog, just as his leaving splits their family life. The children and dog remain in her care, though the children’s “quarreling” anticipates it won’t be easy to be the single parent and the dog’s “growling” suggests he may play an role other than silent pet, and he does.
Lessons for writers
Point the way in the first sentence
When I read masterful opening sentences such as these, I wonder how they evolved. Did the author write them first? Did she know where she was going and how well they’d lead her there? Did she go back to the beginning with each draft, honing these sentences to direct the final manuscript? In the novels I’ve written, there are many attempts at first paragraphs which set up the same story from radically different entry points. Rewriting the first sentence helps me understand the story—a pointer showing where the story wants to go.
Drop details bit by bit
In Ferrante’s first two sentences, the major characters are introduced, except for the “other woman” and the narrator’s new love interest, both of whom will be mentioned by page five. But this novel is mainly about the dissolution of a family, the abandonment of a marriage covenant. Why does the dog appear here? Because he will play a major role in the narrator’s descent into hell and her redemption. Do we need to know this as readers starting out? No. But novel writing is a bit like Hansel and Gretel’s dropping of bread crumbs to mark the trail. Ferrante’s crumbs keep us turning pages, yes, but also introduce bit by bit the ordinary and terribly extraordinary daily details of abandonment.
Make characters complex: Give flaws to protagonists, redeem antagonists
Read Ferrante’s next two lines: “He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier for the abandoned wife if she could hate her husband with better reason than that he left her? How much simpler it would be if he was cruel to the children or beat her. How more likely we could hate him if he just walked out, didn’t “talk for a long time” and reproached her unfairly. How much easier for us and for the narrator to despise a bully than a coward.
Use vivid detail, vivid metaphor
The first paragraph consists of six sentences. Here are the final two: “He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were uging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”
How could we not read on? She’s turned to stone and we don’t even know her name. In fact, she’s so lacking in her own personal sense of identity that we don’t find out her name—Olga—until pages into the story, long after the name of the “other woman” is mentioned. But the “turned to stone” tells us that Olga isn’t taking this calmly in the course of her day, as the narrative tone suggests.
Thread tension: create friction between opposites, against expectations
The tension established between what seems to be and the true depths of emotion keeps tension on the page. The dropping in, little by little, of information tucked among sensory language—”dog growling, radiator (the heat will be echoed later in Olga’s August entrapment in the apartment), extravagant gesture of his right hand, childish frown, sort of whispering”—keeps us reading. We can see, hear, and feel the scene. The “turned to stone” anticipates how bad it will be for our protagonist, who is left not in a romantic upheaval—on the bed! under the train!—but “beside the sink.” For this women, there are dishes to do, even though her marriage has fallen apart. Ferrante shows us well that when things go wrong it’s harder to bear real life if there is no escaping from it.
In my next post, I’ll examine how Ferrante masterfully brings in the necessary back story—never an easy task, always a pitfall for a writer.