‘The Story of the Lost Child’: Elena Ferrante Concludes Her Tetralogy on Female Friendship and Feminist Doubles
Doubles — whether twisted sisterhoods or dark mother-daughter duos — are a common feature of feminist fiction. They appear in many iconic works, from Bertha, the infamous madwoman in the attic whose violence symbolizes Jane Eyre’s suppressed rage to saintly-or-evil Rebecca, laughing from beyond death at the mousy second Mrs. DeWinter, to the returned spirit of Beloved torturing her mother, Sethe, the two women growing and shrinking in proportion to each other. Doubles represent different kinds of womanhood: the furious and the complacent; the sexual and the proper; the one who stays and the one who leaves; the radiant and the ordinary; the sacrificed and the survivor. The structures of racism, classism, misogyny, the world of men — these intruders bifurcate the lives of women, who by necessity must take different routes through the hostile maze; they must choose either to combat the forces that push them down or cooperate with the oppressor.
The feminist double narrative can often be interpreted as describing even two sides of one person, the sublimated and the expressed. Because two doubled characters are fundamentally halves of a whole that has been separated by society, the essential longing of each is always for the other, even through the fog of enmity. As Nel realizes at the end of Toni Morrison’s Sula, her grief for the loss of her childhood companion is actually the defining loss of her life: “‘We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something.”
“Absolute trust and strong affections harbor rancor, trickery, and betrayal,” Ferrante said in her one American interview about the book. Elena and Lina,stars of the Neapolitan novels, best friends, rivals, alter egos, came together in girlhood. With today’s publication of The Story of the Lost Child, we close the final chapter of their story, the fourth and final novel. Having followed them through childhood in Naples and adulthood spread further apart (Elena leaves, Lina stays), the book pivots around its characters’ early middle-aged production and reproduction, their work and children.
When they give birth to daughters at the same time, Ferrante pushes the narrative outward into doubles-of-doubles territory, as Elena watches Lina’s daughter, Tina, and her own, Imma, play together, and sees the mothers’ dynamic recreated: “although my daughter was pretty, and intelligent, beside Tina she turned dull, her virtues vanished, and she felt this deeply.”
The two women, reunited as neighbors in an apartment building in an old Naples block, continue to edge into and out of each other’s lives. At one point, one takes charge of the other’s children, then they reverse. Their affairs and partnerships with men crumble, resurrect themselves, reverse. One of the saddest passages comes when Elena’s children grow attached to Lina, rejecting Elena in the process: “I didn’t now how to make pasta with tomato sauce the way Aunt Lina did, I didn’t know how to dry their hair and comb it with the skill an gentleness she had, I didn’t know how to perform any task that Aunt Lina didn’t approach with a superior sensitivity.”
The two mamas also continue to jostle intellectually, as Elena settles into life as a public figure, a novelist, thinker, and journalist, though she remains haunted by Lina’s raw intelligence. And Lina, one senses, demands that Elena make the most of her life, for both of them: “It flattered me to feel that, compared to her, I was a woman of great experience and I felt that she, too, was pleased with what I was.”
The Story of the Lost Child climaxes with a tragic event that lends the novel its title. I’ll say no more for risk of spoiling it. But later, the book concludes with a moment that throws us back to the very beginning of the first volume, to an image of two small girls on a dirty Naples street. This image calls into question all the assumptions made by Elena throughout the entire series, begging for a re-read, or three. By this point, Elena has committed Lina’s story to paper, despite her promise not to, and Lina, as we already know from the opening of the first book, has completely disappeared. Elena finally loses the last thread of their friendship, never hearing from Lina again — except for one ambiguous communique that is as maddening as it is perfect.
This novel provides a fitting ending, and one feels there could be no other. It is not, however, the most pleasurable to read of the four books. Every Ferrante fan will have her opinion; for me, the best of the “Neapolitan novels” is the second of the four, The Story of a New Name, with its heady teenage subjects. If the overarching story of the series is about twinned, or entwined, women, the period of their adolescence — in which love affairs and schooling begin to send fissures through their relationship — has the most hypnotic, painful power over the reader. And perhaps the appropriate concluding setpiece arrives towards the end of the third novel,Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when the two friends gather with their families for a festive meal, and the families begin to compete over which woman has achieved more, becoming stand-ins for the books’ readers, with our judging tendencies, our captive participation in weighing them against each other.
In the end, perhaps by making Lina part of her body of work (she hates the book, but it’s her most popular), Elena has vanquished this competition, eaten and absorbed her twin. Perhaps she’s just escaped Lina’s looming presence in her life, or simply committed the ultimate betrayal of her childhood, her past, and thereby moved on. Perhaps, as Laura Miller has suggested, Lila figuratively represents the “Naples” side of Elena, the old working-class attitude and fury that she exerted, and remodeled herself to shed. After all, Elena eventually leaves Naples for the final time because her daughter, Imma, is starting to act like the natives. The symbolic open-endedness of The Story of The Lost Child makes the series into something of a circle, a cycle, rather than a linear tale. It’s a stunning feat to contemplate, while also being riveting to read.