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Originally published Friday, September 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Troubling Love": Groping for answers in a forgotten past

Judging by her first two novels, Italian author Elena Ferrante has a rare talent for sucking readers into a roiling cauldron of grief, rage, guilt...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Troubling Love"
by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 139 pp., $14.95

Judging by her first two novels, Italian author Elena Ferrante has a rare talent for sucking readers into a roiling cauldron of grief, rage, guilt and desire.

In "Troubling Love," Ferrante's first novel (but her second to be translated into English), a woman named Delia is stunned to learn that the drowned body of her mother Amalia, clad only in an expensive piece of lingerie, has been found in the sea near a small Italian town.

Why was Amalia there, rather than visiting her daughter in Rome as planned? And was her death a suicide? A murder? An accident?

Anyone expecting a classic mystery story to ensue will soon be disoriented. Narrator Delia's investigation swiftly turns into a feverish, often hallucinatory journey through childhood haunts and memories. And the clues she stumbles over are cryptic — a suitcase full of new clothes, odd and obscene phone calls, a bill for an expensive last supper.

Troubling loves of many kinds are evoked through strange encounters with people from Delia's youth. Key among them is a reunion with her physically abusive father and a mad chase after an elusive gentleman who might have been Amalia's lover.

Ultimately, as Delia's own behavior gets more and more erratic, the specter of Amalia becomes the central figure in this psycho-drama. Sensuous and dowdy, enigmatic and loving, victim and heroine, she plants herself in Delia's reluctant soul until all resistance has been exhausted.

"Troubling Love" is more chaotic and less controlled than Ferrante's "The Days of the Abandonment" (published in the U.S. to admiring reviews in 2005). And it's easy to get lost in its narrative tide.

But both novels are tour de forces, and harrowing tours of a feminine psyche under siege. They both confirm Ferrante's reputation as one of Italy's best contemporary novelists — and help to explain why this daring writer uses a pseudonym to keep her own identity a mystery.

Misha Berson is The Seattle Times theater critic

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