Pain on page one
In Ferrante’s second paragraph, she puts our protagonist in bed—a double bed—desolate. Most craft books warn beginning writers: don’t start your story with a character in bed. However, so much has happened to this poor woman by the book’s seventh sentence that she deserves a rest. She can’t sleep, but only obsesses about her husband. She can’t figure out why he’s left. “I knew him well, I was aware the he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him.We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.” She’s baffled: “It seemed to me impossible that he should truly want to leave.” She’s sympathetic: “When I recalled that he hadn’t taken any of the things that were important to him, and had even neglected to say goodbye to the children, I felt certain it wasn’t serious. He was going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.” Hmm. Does she really know him as well as she thinks she does? She sees him as a character, just as we do. She’s a character too, after all, but by naming him as such, she (the protagonist guided by Ferrante) adds another layer of detachment to her crisis and moves closer to the reader. We feel her physically.
Transition to back story
Then in paragraph three, she confides: “After all, it had happened before: the time and the details came to mind as I tossed and turned in the bed.” This is a masterful transition to back story for many reasons. Ferrante moves from the present to the past keeping the woman in place—in bed— for four pages. During this time the protagonist remembers what happened that other time her husband left, then muses over their relationship with a realtor, Gina, that they’d engaged to buy their house and her teenage daughter, Carla. With the back story, the protagonist can leave the bed in her mind and take us with her: she gives us a taste of Turin, the city to which they’d moved five years ago—metallic, green, yellow, red, leaves, stripped by the wind, foggy air, fresh sparkling breeze. She paints a picture of Mario (her husband is named on page three) with Carla, realizing “it wasn’t the mother I had to worry about but the daughter.” The girl has a “swaying body, restless eyes.” Though this is still back story, it’s sensuous, fully fleshed in our protagonist’s mind as if in the present. We’re told that the marital crisis of the past was resolved and that her husband “returned to being the man he had always been.” By now we’re not sure that is such a good recommendation, if, in fact, he was a man who, as she’s revealed, broke off relations with her for no apparent reason only six months after they had been together, because “there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense,” and then used that same excuse when he became infatuated with the the realtor and her daughter.
Transition to present story
The protagonist breaks her reverie, gets out of bed for a cup of chamomile tea. From her window, she sees the musician Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, “coming up the path,his head bowed, carrying over his shoulders the giant case…” He “disappeared beneath the trees in the little square.” She goes back to bed, believing everything will return to normal. We’re at the end of page six, all the major characters have been introduced, we have a sense of place and time, sensuous detail we can touch, taste, and see, full-bodied characters, an informative and vivid back story—just enough. We’d like to get in bed, too, and believe in normal, but we know that can’t be—or why would this story exist? The tension is palpable. We’re not sleeping tonight. We have to turn the page.
Lesson for writers
Create a “vivid, continuous dream”
Use sensory language to create scenes in the present, past and future. Bring your reader into the character’s consciousness and create the vivid, continuous dream that John Gardner talks about in his artful book The Art of Fiction. He’s not referring to a dream in the character’s mind, though the character may be dreaming. He says that “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” The pull of place—in the above example the bed, a comfortable setting we all know and understand—and sensory language—casts a spell. Olga’s husband’s sudden “absence of sense” is replaced in our minds and its opposite heightened by familiar and vivid sensations. Even when she breaks her reverie, Olga’s desire for camomile tea steeps the transition from back story to present story in sensory detail.