Reviewed by Ruth Latta
In a plain, robust, conversational style, the author known as “Elena Ferrante” has captivated readers worldwide with her chronicle of a complicated friendship between two women. The four novels making up the “Neapolitan” quartet follow the entwined lives of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo Carracci, from elementary school in the 1950s to Lila’s disappearance at age sixty. The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final volume, presents Elena and Lila in mid-life, both back in their crime-ridden impoverished neighbourhood. Their friendship, never harmonious, continues to go up and down until a tragedy and a sad aftermath change things.
The sudden tragic event is foreshadowed by an incident early in the first novel, My Brilliant Friend. Elena and Lila are playing with their dolls in the courtyard near a grate over the cellar window of the home of Don Achille Carracci, a loan shark and black marketeer. Lila pushes Elena’s doll through the grate into the dark depths of the basement. Elena retaliates, then feels dismay at the dolls’ fate. Lila, the braver of the two, convinces Elena that they should knock on the Don’s door and ask for the dolls back, and with much trepidation, they do so. The Don can’t find the dolls but gives them money to buy new ones. Instead, they buy Little Women, hoping to become authors like Louisa May Alcott and make a lot of money.
Elena becomes a writer after many arduous years of education. Lila’s parents won’t send her beyond elementary school, so she relies on her wits and charm to rise in the world. In her father’s shoemaking shop, she makes the prototype of a beautiful shoe, but lacks the knowledge and means to take the idea to the next level. The design ends up in the hands of the Solara family, shopkeepers and moneylenders with criminal connections, whose sons, Michele and Marcello, lord it over the neighbourhood. At sixteen, Lila marries Stefano, the prosperous son of Don Achille, and soon has Stefano’s child, Rino.
As teenagers, both girls are attracted to Nino Sarratore, the handsome, intellectual son of a poet/railway worker. On a holiday to Ischia, Elena hopes that Nino will fall in love with her, but instead he chooses Lila, while Elena falls prey to his lecherous father. In The Story of a New Name (Vol. 2) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, (Vol. 3), Elena attains fame with a novel about her Ischia experience, gets involved in radical politics at university, and marries a young graduate student, Pietro Airota, from a leftist academic family. Meanwhile Lila leaves her abusive husband and her comfortable life to live with a former schoolmate, Enzo Scanno and work in a meat packing plant. Conditions there are horrible, and Nino and Elena help her expose them.
Over the years, Elena and Lila’s friendship continues to be problematic. Lila is jealous of Elena’s successes, though Elena works hard for everything she achieves. For Elena, Lila is a link to her past, a touchstone and a testing ground for her ideas, though often Lila greets her writing with scornful dismissal. Feeling guilty for having left Lila behind, Elena sometimes lets Lila take advantage of her. On one occasion, for example, when Elena, in Florence, is bogged down with young children and unhappy with Pietro, Lila parks her young son Rino on Elena’s household for months, claiming that she is in crisis.
Ferrante’s examination of women’s friendship in a working class setting reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Braided Lives, but although the American cousins in Marge Piercy’s novel are sometimes rivals, their relationship is not toxic.
Elena puts up with a lot from Lila because she considers her brilliant, and certainly Lila is a quick study, more technologically savvy than Elena, and and more knowledgeable about human human duplicity. Yet she is very subjective, cannot take the long view of things, and grabs at quick fixes. In an Alice Munro’s short story, “The Love of a Good Woman”, a dedicated conscientious nurse speaks of high school girls who “displayed a hard-faced satisfaction with themselves. They lasted only a year or two – they got pregnant, most of them got married…She was sorry for them even when she remembered how determined they had been to get what they had got.” To an extent, Lila falls into this category.
Both Lila and Elena are haunted by the spectre of the “madwoman” Melina, a neighbour who lost her sanity after she was dumped by Nino’s philandering father. Several times over the years, Lila experiences a sensation of dissolving boundaries. In The Story of the Lost Child she tells Elena: “You remember how the night sky of Ischia horrified me? You all said how beautiful it was, but I couldn’t. I smelled an odour like rotten eggs… I had in my mouth poisoned egg stars… and yet in Ischia I was happy, full of love.” She confides further that her “head always finds a chink to peer through” to “where the fear is.” Elena always feels like the “needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead draws circles around it” but realizes that Lila struggles to feel stable.
“From 1976 until 1979, when I returned to Naples to live, I avoided assuming a steady relationship with Lila,” Elena says in The Story of the Lost Child. At that time, Lila and Enzo are prospering in a computer business which enables them to help their neighbours with money and free them from the tentacles of the Solara brothers’ criminal syndicate. At the end of Book Three, when Elena leaves her husband and young daughters to fly away from Florence with Nino, I hoped that he would be her new best friend in a “marriage of true minds”, so to speak. Elena soon moves to Naples with her young daughters because Nino’s career, wife and son are there, ignoring Lila’s warning not to trust Nino.
Pregnancy brings the friends together again. Both give birth to girls, Elena’s “Imma” and Lila’s “Tina” When Elena discovers that Nino is involved with other women and breaks up with him, she faces a Catch-22. Without child care she cannot earn money from her writing, but she cannot afford child care. Lila then makes a seemingly generous offer of the apartment above hers and a promise to mind the girls when Elena has to be away on book promotion trips.
This sisterly arrangement inevitably brings problems; Lila undercuts Elena’s rules, tries to supplant her, and constantly implies that Elena is a bad mother for not being at home. Worse, Lila’s precocious daughter, Tina, overshadows timid Imma, who lacks a father-figure at home. A photographer who comes to take pictures for an article about Elena, takes shots of all four girls, but the photo used in the magazine shows Tina, misidentified as Elena’s daughter.
Later, Elena and Lila clash when both of Elena’s daughters develop crushes on Rino, Lila’s son, who, now in his twenties, is an unemployed recovering drug addict.
In reviewing The Story of the Lost Child, wondering how much of the plot to reveal, I remembered that the ending – Lila’s disappearance at age sixty – is right at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in the series. I also realized that the title, The Story of the Lost Child, is a “spoiler” in and of itself. Since the Neapolitan novels have already been widely analysed, I have decided in this review to reveal key plot points to show how the last novel brings the quartet full circle.
Two thirds of the way through Lost Child we find out which child is lost and that the loss is actual, not metaphoric. It happens when Nino comes to see Imma and takes all four girls out for treats. Elena, waiting in the apartment, wonders just how Lila will insert herself into the visit, which was intended to boost Imma’s self-esteem. When Elena goes out of the building to meet her family on their return, she sees her two older daughters eating cotton candy and browsing at a stall, while Nino, at the corner, is talking to Enzo and Lila, who has Imma in her arms. Elena joins him, announces that it is the girls’ lunch time, then asks, “Where’s Tina?” No one knows. She was there a minute ago, then vanished, and despite the efforts of police and neighbours, is never found.
Lila, convinced that Tina is alive somewhere, “grew old, screeching and quarrelling.” After she and Enzo break up and sell the computer business for much less than anticipated, she begins travelling around Naples, researching heritage sites and the city’s history of violence.
By 1995, Elena’s older girls are with their father in the United States, studying, and she is tired of watching the “deterioration” of her friends’ and siblings’ lives. Observing the changing political climate, she writes: “The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned and become the linchpin of freedom and democracy everywhere.” When she leaves with Imma in 1995, to run a publishing house in Turin, she and Lila have an “affectionate farewell.”
Later, unwillingly retired, with her body of work out of print and deemed out of date, Elena visits Lila in Naples and, on one visit, discovers that Lila sees her as the cause of Tina’s disappearance. Left-leaning public intellectuals like Elena attract enemies, and Lila thinks that someone wanted to harm Elena by kidnapping Imma, but took the wrong girl because of the magazine photo where Tina was misidentified as Elena’s child. Elena doesn’t believe the theory, but is sorry for Lila’s great suffering. She is inspired to write about their “splendid and shadowy” friendship, from the childhood doll incident to Tina’s vanishing, to give Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn calm myself.” The resulting novel restores Elena’s reputation and returns her to the spotlight. Lila refuses to discuss the book, not even to insult or reproach Elena for writing it. The book is undoubtedly a factor that leads Lila to drop from sight.
The Neapolitan novels seem to be autobiographical because the narrator/co-protagonists’s first name, “Elena”, is the same as the author’s pseudonym, but no one knows for sure whether or not they are. Other reviewers have found mythological elements in them, seeing Lila as a force of nature, akin to the earthquake in Book Four, or to the cycles of violence and corruption that continue on from one generation to another. While aware of the magic, violence and coincidence, I have focused this review on the compelling account of the co-protagonists’ relationship. The Story of the Lost Child, indeed, the series as a whole, fascinated me for the depiction of a human being too long in thrall to someone who seemed to me undeserving of that power. All of us have had similiar relationships, to a greater or lesser degree, and can relate. As a writer, I was glad that Elena and her writing survive her connection with troubled, manipulative Lila, and that Elena finally lets her go. The surprise twist at the end seemed to me to reinforce my view, but other readers will undoubtedly have a different slant.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s most recently published novel is Most of All, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information about her books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com