***WARNING! Spoilers for both book and movie!***
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (2006)
The Lost Daughter directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal (2021)
Simone Weil – “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”.
Leda is a 48-year-old professor vacationing over the summer. She watches a family on the beach which includes a young mother (Nina) her daughter (Elena) and Elena’s doll which she treats like her own daughter.
One day Elena goes missing and Leda keeps a cool head and is able to find her. Elena is upset though because she can’t find her beloved doll. We later learn that Leda had stolen the doll before helping find Elena.
While interreacting with Nina and the family, we get flashbacks into Leda’s life and how she struggled to be a mother to her two daughters when they were young. Then, when the oldest was seven, she left for three years to pursue her career and to be with the man she had been having an affair with. However, after three years she decided to return to her daughters.
She still has guilt about having done this, and perhaps feels guilt about acknowledging that she loved getting that time away from them to focus on herself. Her selfish actions in life have now left her lonely at times, as we see here as she is alone on summer vacation. It seems this vacation has led her to reflect more on her past and actions and is forcing her to come to terms with it more so than she has up until this time.
With Nina, the two of them bond over the struggles of motherhood, though Nina can’t totally comprehend Leda just abandoning her daughters. Anyway, in the end Leda returns the doll and Nina is shocked that Leda stole it and kept it when Leda could see how upset Elena was about not having the doll. Nine ends up stabbing Leda in the side with her hat pin before leaving.
Leda is the antithesis of the perfect mom image we have. A woman who is so self sacrificing and will do anything for her kids and sacrifice herself for their sake. Gyllenhaal sees Leda as being an extreme example of something mothers go through-needing a breather from their kids and home life and needing time pursue their own wants and needs. Leda suffers the consequences of her choice to leave her girls for a time, so this story certainly isn’t saying that was Leda did was right. As we will be getting into in this episode.
There are some books that when I finish, I know right away how I would rate it. This book was not that. I had to reflect on the book to really figure out how I felt about it.
I went into it knowing literally nothing about the plot and after I finished, I read others reviews that talked about how unlikeable Leda was. What does it say about me, that as I was reading, I didn’t find myself hating her?? Yes, she is selfish and acts in ways that don’t make sense. Stealing the doll and keeping it, for example. However, Ferrante did a wonderful job at putting you in Leda’s shoes and even though I didn’t condone her choices, I was able to see where she was coming from. I also love the nuance and subtlety of this story. We can see that Leda isn’t a great person, but Ferrante isn’t straight up telling us, “hey this character is bad and you should dislike her”. She just tells the story, showing us Leda’s life and internal dialogue, and leaves it to the reader to decide how they feel about it.
This book also has so many passages about motherhood and the mother/daughter relationship I found so interesting. I couldn’t relate to everything, for one I’m not a mother. But whether or not the section I found I relatable or not, I found all of it very intriguing and wanted to keep reading. The complications of parenthood are something that interest me. I find books about someone who has an estranged parent to be something I gravitate towards and now, reading about the person on the other end was very compelling.
Anyway, this is a four-star book and one I would recommend. I even thought of giving it a five star, but for now I’ll stick with four. It is less than 150 pages and this was a good call on Elena’s part. Sure, she could have gone more in details on other things, but I like that she kept it short and focused.
This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debute, and I was very impressed! Ferrante would only give the rights to her novel if a woman directed the movie which makes total sense. I cannot imagine a man directing this movie.
Olivia Coleman is amazing as Leda. Her emotions are so raw and genuine, I don’t know who someone can watch this movie and not cry when she is crying. She is able to convey so much with her expressions and I was truly impressed.
Jessie Buckley plays young Leda, and again, she is amazing! You can feel her stress as she tries to be a mom while also pursuing her schooling and career and the freedom she feels when she is at the conference and how fullfilled she feels when she is acknowledged for her work. I talked about her for my podcast for I’m Thinking of Ending Things book vs movie and was impressed with her in that as well. She and Coleman are both nominated for an Oscar and the nominations are well deserved.
Dakota Johnson is Nina, the young mother and I thought she was great in the scene in the toy store when she is trying to get Elena to let go of her and you can see how she is at the end of her rope.
Ed Harris is great in his role as Lyle, the man Leda is renting her place from.
The book begins with the end-as does the movie. In the book though, we start with her waking up in the hospital because she crashed her car into the guardrail. She is fine, aside from a mysterious lesion on her side. She says of the lesion’s origin, “At the origin was a gesture of mine that made no sense, and which, precisely because it was senseless, I immediately decided not to speak of to anyone. The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.”
At the end of the book, we see how she got the wound from Nina stabbing her with the hat pin. (The very hat pin Leda had bought for Nina). A bit after Nina leaves, her daughters call her and in unison ask why she hasn’t called and could she let them know if she is dead or alive. Leda responds with, “I’m dead, but I’m fine.” Then, we know from here she crashes her car, ends up in the hospital and her ex-husband, her daughters and people from work are there for her or on their way to her.
In the movie, she drives, then pulls over at the beach and falls. When she wakes up, she has an orange from a family nearby and gets a call from her daughters and when asked if she is dead or alive, she says she is alive. The orange is significant because in both book and movie her daughters had liked to watch her peel oranges because she kept the peel whole and peeled it to make a “snake”. This is the last thing she had done for them before leaving them for those three years. Of this scene in the book it reads, “All right, I said, took the orange, began to cut the peel. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine. I finished peeling the orange and I left. From that moment, for three years, I didn’t see or hear them at all.”
The movie and book endings are very different with the line saying either I’m dead, then in the movie saying I’m alive. In the movie, has she had a coming to herself moment and is finally at peace with her past? Whereas in the movie, does she also come to terms with herself in a way and feel she has finally paid the price for her selfish actions by being stabbed? So maybe the two endings are so different after all, if in both she is at peace with her past actions. I heard someone else say how in the movie, who knows if her waking up on the beach was reality or not. I’m taking it more at face value and assuming it is still part of her life and she isn’t dreaming or dead. What do you think?
Her saying in the book, “I’m dead but I’m fine.” could definitely be her accepting herself for who she is. Acknowledging her selfishness and her coldness. I guess, whether or not this is a turning point in her life is up to interpretation.
Leaving her daughters
Another change is when she is talking to Nina about having left her kids. Nina asked why she came back after those three years and in the movie, Leda says that she started to miss them, that she’s a selfish person and so when she began to miss them she returned. In the book her response is very different,
“Because I realized that I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them.”
She had a sudden contented smile. “So you returned for love of your daughters.”
“No, I returned for the same reason I left: for love of myself.”
She again took offense. “What do you mean?”
“That I felt more useless and desperate without them than with them.”
In the book she also confesses to Nina and her sister-in-law (the pregnant woman) about leaving her daughters when in the toy store. Because of this, the sister-in-law (in the movie her name is Callie, in the book she is Rosaria) doesn’t want Nina to talk to Leda anymore. Callie thinks she understands motherhood because she is pregnant. But she doesn’t yet realize the harsh realities of being a mom the way Nina and Leda do.
In the movie, when asking about her young daughters, Leda says the line about not remembering much from that time. But then rather then tell them the truth, she gets dizzy and has to leave the store. It isn’t until later, when talking just to Nina, that Leda tells her about leaving. This happens like 1.5 hours into the movie whereas in the book this is revealed at about halfway, if not sooner.
In the book, we learn that at some point she wrote her daughters a letter explaining why she had left. Her daughters never spoke of it, and never spoke of the letter from her. Part of the letter we hear said, “I wrote: I needed to believe that I had done everything alone. I wanted, with increasing intensity, to feel myself, my talents, the autonomy of my abilities.” The letter shows that she has tried in the past to come to terms with things, but her daughters don’t want to forgive her and/or don’t want to face the trauma of what her actions did to them.
In book and movie, we get a lot of flashbacks to the time leading up to Leda leaving. We see in both when Bianca hits Leda and thinks it’s a game and Leda gets upset. She puts her in another room and slams the door causing the glass to break. This happens in the book as well, but the movie doesn’t show that when Bianca started to hit Leda, Leda began hitting her back.
We also see in both when one of the daughters hurts her fingers and is asking Leda to kiss it-a seemingly easy gesture. Yet Leda refuses. “I was frightened, yelled at her: I couldn’t leave her alone for a moment, there was never time for myself. I felt that I was suffocating, it seemed to me that I was betraying myself. For long minutes I refused to kiss her wound, the kiss that makes the pain go away. I wanted to teach her that you don’t do that…only Mama does it, who is grown up.”
After taking Elena’s doll, Leda thinks of the act, “An infantile reaction, nothing special, we never really grow up.” Leda often reacts childlike. Earlier with not giving Bianca the kiss, she was acting childish but the irony was that she was trying to show that she was an adult. Even not giving up the chair to the family when it was the pregnant woman’s birthday. It was annoying they were being bossy about wanting the chair, but really, she could easily have just moved off to the side and it’s no big deal.
Stealing the doll and choosing to keep it for so long was interesting. Elena, the girl, treats the doll as if it is her own daughter. When Leda sees Nina and Elena interacting there is a moment when Leda finds Nina annoying. As if she is just putting on a show of being a good mom.
When the doll is missing, Elena is sick and throws fits, and seems to regress in age without her doll. You can compare this to Leda, who was without her daughters, yet it was her choice and she seemed to be doing relatively fine not having her daughters around. Her mom was even helping with the girls, which Leda was upset about because she did not like her mother or her hometown and had been proud of escaping both. yet she didn’t have a say in the matter because she chose to not take part in parenting them at that point.
I suppose she wanted to care for the doll, maybe to make up for not being a great mom. It’s easy to be a good mom to a doll because a doll doesn’t actually require anything from you.
She gets all the muddy water out of the dolls belly and discovers that had also been a worm in there. She thinks how she too has a darkness inside her. “You keep your liquid darkness in your stomach…I, too, was hiding many dark things, in silence.”
There are a number of things in this book (and movie) that seem significant or symbolic. We have the cicada that is on her pillow her first night on vacation; the pinecone that mysteriously hits her back as she walks back to her room; the fruit that looks good on the front, but once picked up we see it has rotted; then of course the doll itself.
The events that disrupt her vacation could represent how things do go as you dream they will. She thought she could be a mom and life would be good but turns out it was harder than she had realized. She thought she could go on this vacation and enjoy herself, but different events disrupt her vacation and it isn’t a dreamy as it initally appeared to be. She also thought leaving her daughters would lead to a better life for her, but we see that it wasn’t as fullfilling as it initally appeared to be and so she returns to them.
Leda did not have a good relationship with her own mother. Her mom always threatened to leave, and Leda would lay in bed at night fearing she would wake up to find her mother gone. She felt that her mother was disconnected from her, even repulsed by her. She did not like her own childhood and being able to escape her mother and her hometown at 18 was a big moment in her life. She even says in the book that her worst nightmare would be to relive her childhood years. Yet she held onto her childhood doll for a long time. Until she gives it to her daughter, who does not care for the doll and mistreats it. Leda is upset about this and throws it out the window where it is crushed by passing cars as she and the daughter watch.
Anyway, I wanted to share a couple passages I found interesting.
“My daughters make a constant effort to be the reverse of me.”
“How foolish to think you can tell your children about yourself before they’re at least fifty. To ask to be seen by them as a person and not as a function. To say: I am your history, you begin from me, listen to me, it could be useful to you.”
“I realized long ago that I’ve held onto little of myself and everything of them. Even now, I was looking at Gino through the filter of Bianca’s experiences, of Marta’s, according to the tastes and passions I imagine as theirs.”
We hear that Nina’s family are “bad people” but that’s it. This is one aspect that could have been expounded upon but really, the reason why they are bad doesn’t matter in the context of the story Ferrante is telling. This is a story about mothers and daughters.
“Men are, in the world of Leda and Nina and Elena and even Mina, deeply beside the point, satellites orbiting around their central world, annoyances to be dealt with and expelled or dangers to be dodged. Yet each of these women live a life still structured by male intrusions, expectations, and impositions. The reference to Zeus’s apocalyptic, cataclysmic rape of Leda, which results in Helen, another woman whose mere existence so agitates men that they launch the Trojan War, is pointed. Leda is experiencing all of this on a beach in Greece to underline the point: mothers and daughters, for millennia, are always living in that brutal world of men, and trying to carve out their own world inside of it… in the end she can’t outrun the facts of the world in which she lives. She is happy and miserable, full of love and also frustrated by it. She’s no heroine, not someone to emulate. But as she sees herself in Nina and even in Elena, they can spot a kind of future in her; they’re all of a piece with one another. Daughters like them, and mothers too, are always getting lost in the world. The older they get, the more they realize it’s their own responsibility to find themselves.” 1
We also see in the movie in particular, various men who have left their children but society doesn’t judge them for it as much as they judge a woman for leaving her kids. The male hiker has children he left, Lyle’s kids are in America while he has been in Greece the last 30 years, and Tony, Nina’s husband, is only there at random times.
Book or Movie?
I think the beginning, when Leda is observing Nina and her family, works really well in a movie. Even though this book is a lot of Leda’s internal thoughts and emotions, the movie is able to convey those things without the use of a narrator. In the scene when Leda has dinner with Will (in the book his name is Gino) in the movie she tells him much more about herself and her daughters. This wasn’t in the book, but the movie used that scene as an opportunity to see her thoughts.
Overall, I think I may like the movie adaptation better. It follows the book extremely close, and is beautifully made. And again, Coleman was incredible. Even though her character did some bad things, Coleman was sympathetic and pitiable. When she is telling Nina about having left her daughters, the scene is so powerful and it is followed by young Leda peeling the orange and leaving her daughters. So poignant! How can anyone see that part of the movie and not tear up at least a bit.
Leda is struggling the actions of her past when watching and interacting with Nina and her daughter and the doll. She also wants to have a chance to talk to Nina one on one rather than having the sister-in-law there because she feels Nina will be able to understand her since she herself is a mother. Nina confides in Leda that she too, sometimes would like to escape. I’m not saying this is how all mothers feel. I really have no idea, but obviously some mothers do. This book shows the ambivalence of being a parent, but particularly being a mom. Especially since society makes women feel like they should want to have children and their kids should come before everything else. But then Leda chooses herself over her children for a time.
Ultimately, I felt this story touch me with both book and movie. The movie though caused me to cry, whereas the book didn’t, so it seems fair to say the movie wins due to it causing me to feel even more emotion. I would recommend the book though because it gives you so much to think about and reflect on whether you are a parent or mother or not.