What words do you save? Here’s your chance to bring them out, like the silver for the wedding of the first-born: genius, tour de force, masterpiece. They apply to the work of Elena Ferrante, whose newly translated novel “The Story of the Lost Child” is the fourth and final one of her magnificent Neapolitan quartet, a sequence which now seems to me, at least within all that I’ve read, to be the greatest achievement in fiction of the post-war era.
The books portray the profound, ferocious friendship of Lila and Lenù, the two brightest girls in a poor and violent Naples neighborhood. “My Brilliant Friend” described their childhood in the 1950s; “The Story of a New Name,” their early adulthood; “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” their difficult 20s.
At the outset of this last novel, it’s Lenù who has ostensibly come closer to the shared dream of escape that defined those books. She’s a famous novelist and political essayist, and has captured Nino, the self-absorbed but magnetic academic with whom both women have at various moments fallen in love. Lila, the wilder, more dazzlingly brilliant of the friends, meanwhile, has returned to the old neighborhood. (Lenù is generally steadier and calmer, making them, in their way, a classic dialectical literary pair, like Hamlet and Horatio, Holmes and Watson, Salander and Blomkvist.)
It’s hard to describe the greatness and beauty of the three novels that precede “The Story of the Lost Child.” No books have ever seemed closer to life to me, so utterly honest, so utterly human, the experience of reading them something close to spiritual. They were unprecedented: as alive and torrential as Tolstoy, as precise and unerring as Flaubert. It would take twice the space allotted to this review simply to do justice to their technical genius — the innovative way, for instance, that Ferrante (through her estimable translator, Ann Goldstein) uses the comma splice to signify the fluidity of thought, action and memory in life, or how her resistance to generalization allows her to work with such remarkable nearness to her characters’ motivations.
This greatness places a heavy burden on “The Story of the Lost Child,” and it is, perhaps by necessity, a different kind of novel, covering more time than the previous three together, beginning when Lenù and Lila are young mothers and tracking them into old age. The violent, tremulous desire of youth is gone; in its place, as Lila, always more penetrating, perceives first, is the strange fact of adulthood, which is so much less convincing than childhood, accelerated and yet without the same momentum, more modest and managerial. “Accept that to be adult is to disappear,” Lenù finally says, and later, “I had anticipated countless times redemptive changes that … never arrived.”
This diffusion of perspective feels sad at first, and then right. E.M. Forster once observed that at the end of most novels, the plot takes its “cowardly revenge” on the characters. Ferrante refuses that path, and so the decades through which Lila and Lenù live in “The Story of the Lost Child” are full of randomness, loss, endings without conclusions. (There is one stroke of tragedy that seems like a misstep, reminiscent of her earlier, melodramatic work.) It recalls the heartrending climax of “Middlemarch,” which watches time slipping away unobserved from people we’ve come to love.
Now that this tetralogy is complete, it’s possible to step back and take in just how much it contains. Like its predecessors, “The Story of the Lost Child” effortlessly balances the social, political, personal and artistic; almost incidentally, Ferrante has conducted one of the signal investigations into the history of women in our time.
But it’s also worth assessing individually. The great character of the four books — indeed, one of the great characters in all of literature — is Lila, with her brilliance, her savage anger, and her intensely moving goodness. She’s less central here, however, and when I think of “The Story of the Lost Child” I suspect it will be of the long stretch of it in which Lenù finally grows close for a brief time with her abrasive, limping scourge of a mother, who is dying of cancer. “Do you remember when I was young?” she asks her daughter, a moment that summarizes this particular novel’s foregrounded, unsentimental surprise at the nature of time.
Then they embrace, and, in a line that might be a metaphor for the reader’s experience of all of Ferrante’s unforgettable art, Lenù thinks, wonderingly: “It was as if she meant to slip inside me and stay there.”
Charles Finch is a writer based in Chicago. His most recent novel is “The Last Enchantments.”