Italy produces few international bestsellers, but in recent years four volumes by an anonymous Italian author have become a fictional juggernaut that no one saw coming. The author is Elena Ferrante, but it’s a pseudonym because she is someone who wishes to remain totally private and succeeds beautifully. Her “Neapolitan Novels” start with “My Brilliant Friend” (2011), followed by “The Story of a New Name” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.” The fourth book, published this year, “The Story of the Lost Child,” brings this remarkable epic to a close. The books are high drama — set in an exceptionally vivid world and focusing on the lifelong attachment of two women over a 60-year period.
Lila and Elena inhabit an operatic universe of violence, jealousy, love triangles and political upheaval; they are unforgettable characters in the grand tradition of the 19th-century novel. Growing up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Naples, Elena is the hard-working, conscientious one, who wins a place at a good school; she escapes to a new life in Florence, and becomes the writer who confides this story in intense, analytical detail. Her best friend Lila is the charismatic, fierce, impulsive one who stays at home: a “terrible, dazzling girl” who fascinates everyone in the neighborhood. She drops out of school, marries young and badly.
The novel, taking place from the late 70s to present day, opens when Elena’s circumstances change. She’s lived away from Naples for a long time, but Lila persuades her it’s time to come home. The two become neighbors as well as friends. Proximity and shared experiences make them closer as adults than they ever have been, until tragedy strikes Lila, changing her so utterly that Elena can’t help her.
The novel’s top layer is packed with the usual events of ordinary lives: babies, teenagers, estranged husbands, philandering lovers, troubled siblings, dying parents. This domesticity takes place in a community in which murder is chillingly commonplace, during an era of Italian history known for political instability and corruption. There’s even an earthquake, recounted with terrifying eye-witness immediacy.
The teeming surfaces of the Neapolitan novels — and this one particularly — effectively conceal its depths, but once you find them, they shimmer and move. Shift your focus, and the friendship becomes less the story’s center and more of a premise and framework for Elena to review her life. Another shift and you see how much of the novel’s significant action is contrived but balanced; even the earthquake’s literal seismic shift has metaphoric weight.
So much happens in “The Story of the Lost Child” that it’s almost a shock when it wraps up the various strands to return to the cycle’s opening events. This clever, haunting storytelling has earned the quartet of books and its author a cultish following. Ferrante slowly beguiles her readers — if she hooks you, your reward is an expansive, multi-dimensional testament of friendship and social history, a heady blend of personal and political, intimate and epic. From a literary perspective, Ferrante’s approach is masterly. She uses the melodrama of soap opera to tell a fantastically good story, all the while sneaking in piercing observations, like a file baked into a cake. Whoever Elena Ferrante is, she is often called “a 21st-century Dickens.” Well-deserved praise indeed.