Reviewed by Katherine Hill
Individual lives lend themselves well to book-length fiction. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a long life, like a novel, and even the most typical lives feature a staggering number of turns. But it takes a transcendent imagination to write a life that reads as if it actually happened, in our own world, and not too long ago. We’re lucky to have one such imagination working now, that of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante.
Her ferociously addictive Neapolitan quartet – My Brilliant Friend (English translation, 2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and now the final volume, The Story of the Lost Child – takes on not one fictional life, but two: Elena “Lenù” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo, formidable women born in Naples in 1944.
While the Western novel has traditionally placed a single person’s destiny, or the destiny of a couple or family, at the center of the action, Ferrante’s monumental achievement builds an entire 20th-century city around a powerful female friendship. The books contain as many people as a life – parents, children, mentors, rivals, and an abundance of charismatic men – but Ferrante never fails to return to the friendship. Or rather, Lenù, our narrator over the course of these 1,600-plus pages, never fails to return to Lila, the comrade, critic, and other self who, for better or for worse, towers over her existence.
Lenù lets us know from the start that she is writing out of anger. The women are 66, and Lila has disappeared without a trace, just as Lenù knows she has always wanted to do. The Neapolitan novels are thus an act of revenge – Lila cannot altogether disappear if Lenù writes about her – as well as the breathless, bruising recollections of a writer desperate to get her story in order.
Their bond is forged early. “Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad,” Lenù tells us in My Brilliant Friend. “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” But while Lenù continues with her education, Lila goes to work in her family’s shoemaking business and marries an affluent shopkeeper. Over the course of the next two books, their lives diverge, Lenù’s unfolding mostly outside of Naples, among intellectuals and other elites, while Lila, moving from shoe design to factory work to computing, remains a force within the crime-infested, working-class neighborhood in which they were born and raised.
The Story of the Lost Child at last brings Lenù, a respected novelist, back to Naples, where the two women raise their families together throughout the 1980s and 1990s. “Never,” she writes archly, “had so little space separated Lila and me, not even when we were children. My floor was her ceiling.” It also brings us to the event we’ve been anticipating from the first page: the crisis that hastens Lila’s disappearance and the fate of a friendship that Lenù is still, after all these years, struggling to understand.
Like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, this is a story of female experience that simultaneously argues for a larger, historical rupture. Or, as Lenù puts it in her characteristically accelerating prose:
“There are moments when what exists on the edges of our lives 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 – collapses in an utterly unexpected way, and right when countless other things are pressing upon us.”
By the end of the series, it’s impossible to resist reading autobiographically, with novelist Elena Greco standing in for novelist Elena Ferrante, a pseudonym for the woman whose true identity is the best-kept secret in the literary world. But we shouldn’t get too carried away. So what if the real Elena Ferrante has daughters or a friend like Lila, as a recent, rare interview in Vanity Fair suggests?
However much she might know of real life, and of the violent dialogues of the late 20th century, the real Elena Ferrante is not the answer to the novels’ many questions. Only reading them is, and discussing them passionately with women and men who have read and lived them, too.
Katherine Hill is the author of the novel “The Violet Hour.”