The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final installation in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series. The first book, My Brilliant Friend, begins with the school-aged narrator, Elena, finding herself drawn to the academic life despite her family’s limited resources and lack of encouragement. This segment includes the history the Naples neighborhood where most of the series is set, delivered in a sort of gritty realism. We are introduced to Elena’s friend, Lila, against whom she measures herself. Both young women are intelligent, but their impoverished surroundings offer nothing for them. Elena finds her worth through hard work and praise from her teachers, whereas Lila’s strength is her cunning and charm. Their relationship is magnetized: absolute attraction, yet at other times, violent repulsion. This switchback will define their friendship for the rest of their lives. Also introduced is Nino, who will become a major source of attraction and aggravation.
The Story of a New Name spans their young adulthood and the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, tells, for lack of a better term, the middle years. The two women achieve much for themselves, Elena as a scholar and writer and Lila as a businessperson. Both fall in and out of love, bear children, make disastrous choices, yet manage to save themselves. Their lives carry on against the backdrop of the roiling criminal element, workers’ uprisings, and the modernization of Italy.
For those who cringe at the mention of series fiction, listen up: these stories are void of vampires, whips, and biblical revelations. Not a move is predictable, and there isn’t a tidy ending to be found. Ferrante’s characters are complicated, infuriating, and shattered by their own histories. The only drawback is the huge population in these books, a situation that the author deals with by providing a guide in the front of each volume. While it’s a little cumbersome to flip back and forth from the index, I soon found that I had the characters and all of their familial weavings situated.
So. We are left at the end of the third novel with Elena forging a solid literary career, and her home life about to implode. She has escaped the Naples of her youth, living a comfortable middle-class life, but with a brusque husband and two obnoxious daughters. Her heart is with Nino, the narcissistic scholar, where it has always been. Nino has been in the picture since they were children, insulting Elena, having an affair with Lila, leaving spawn hither and yon. But, you know: lust. Meanwhile, the workers’ protests have become violent, and political friends of Elena’s have had to go into hiding. The elderly matriarch/moneylender of the old neighborhood, Manuela Solara, has been murdered, and no one’s talking. Organized crime has moved beyond petty bribery; rather than the annoyance it once was (or appeared to the women in their youth), it is now an invincible evil.
Book four, The Story of the Lost Child, has Elena returning to Naples with her children to live in a flat set up by Nino, who refuses to leave his wife and very probably has a stable of women. For whatever reason, Elena puts up with this (our pesky hearts) and her desperate situation: she is now poor and alone with her wretched children. She struggles to remain relevant as a writer but continues to try to make sense of herself. Her thinned life causes Elena to seek out Lila, from whom she has been estranged.
Elena reflects on her relationship to Lila, which is inseparable from her own sense of self.
I mustn’t take the first path, on which if I set myself aside, I would end up finding even fewer traces of Lila—since the very nature of our relationship dictates that I can reach her only by passing through myself. … That, in fact, I speak of my experience in increasingly greater detail is just what she certainly would favor. Come on—she would say—tell us what turn your life took, who cares about mine, admit that it doesn’t even interest you.
To regain herself, Elena must reconcile with Lila, and to fully appreciate Lila, she first needs to examine how she has lived. Elena also realizes that Naples is the place that made her, and that she will never truly escape it.
The two women finally reunite after the protracted separation, Elena tenuously assessing the fissures in their friendship, feeling guilty over her time away, as well as the comfortable life she cast off.
Maybe it seemed wrong that it was she, yet again, who was eager to see me, while I insisted on keeping her outside of my life. Or maybe it seemed to me rude that she continued to be interested in me, while I, by my silence, by my absence, intended to signal to her that she no longer interested me.
Elena finds Lila resigned to the ways of the neighborhood, including the organized crime that both keeps it running and defeats it. While Elena was living away, the mob has allowed, encouraged, even, the drug trade to take over the neighborhood. Lila and her partner Enzo presciently move into the computer business, probably amassing fortunes, which they astutely keep hidden. Formerly flamboyant with her wealth and status, Lila at first appears cowed, but in time we see that she has simply matured.
Then there is a whole lot of trouble. And that trouble begets more self-reflection, but not necessarily self-knowledge. Babies are born, not all of which are welcome. There is a great tragedy, which is alluded to by the book’s title. This event breaks one of the characters beyond repair, as it is the thing from which one cannot recover. I am hesitant to give away much more, but know that I am dying to do so. Instead, I offer a few tidbits somewhat divorced from their context.
Antonio, Elena’s childhood boyfriend, comes to the rescue—sort of—and with uncharacteristic wisdom, tries to convince her of Nino’s numerous and overlapping romantic encounters.
“As for infidelities,” he said, “if you don’t find out about them at the right moment they’re of no use: when you’re in love, you forgive everything. For infidelities to have their real weight some lovelessness has to develop first.”
Elena finally calls out the straying Nino—assuming that one can “stray” from a mistress—and says this of his defense:
On that theme, he often undertook long, very cultured monologues in which he tried to convince me that it wasn’t his fault but that of nature, of astral matter, of spongy bodies and their excessive liquids, of the immoderate heat of his loins—in short, of his exorbitant virility.
We also witness the resurrection of a novel Elena had written long ago, the manuscript having been abandoned on Lila’s advice. She pulls the manuscript out of some forgotten shelf to offer as a token when she misses a deadline, and Elena’s publisher is intrigued. The story, we can assume, is of Lila and Elena, of Naples, of the time in which they live. While the story hasn’t changed, literary sensibilities have evolved—what was once dismissed as prurient is now embraced as revelatory. Elena realizes that she and Lila are not one, and “from childhood I had given her too much importance.” This break from mutual dependence is a first move toward Elena appreciating her own worth.
The bad news is that this fourth book cannot be appreciated without first reading the other three. The good news is that there are three other books to read in preparation for this one. I would suggest a binge, not because they are a light read, but because they are tantalizing. Unlike most books of a breathtaking nature, these are beautifully wrought, with layered and intricate characters acting in extreme, but believable ways. And now, I leave you with this:
There are moments when what we place on the edges of our life, and which, it seems, will be in the background forever—an empire, a political party, a faith, a monument, but also simply the people who are part of our daily existence—falls down in an utterly unexpected way, and just as countless other things are pressing upon us. … Day after day, month after month, task was added to task, tremor to tremor.
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein). New York, New York: Europa Editions, September 2015. 464 pages. $18.00, paper.
Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and artist living in Arroyo Seco, a tiny rural village in northern New Mexico. She has taught metalsmithing to jaded college students, mentored middle schoolers in creative writing and facilitated installation art with kindergartners. When all that isn’t going on, there is way too much skiing. She received an MFA (visual arts) from the California College of the Arts and is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bennington. She has published stories and essays in a number of small journals, and is a reader for some larger ones.