The second, curious, uncommitted reader will enter a uniquely unsentimental but riveting portrait of long-term female friendship with its constant one-upmanship and insecurity amidst puffs of warm-giving. Not chick lit, it will appeal to men, not just because of the male characters in the book, but also the politics and the fine-crafting of an unusual set of characters and environment. The novels’ events from the 1950s up to 2007 trace Italy’s political problems, particularly in a Neapolitan lower class neighborhood of hardworking families. The neighborhood is definitely a character, and the relationships are convoluted and evolve as in real life.
A reader should start at the beginning of the four novels, or they miss the background for this powerful ending. However, doing so is a real commitment of many pages because the books make one continuous story, which must be read in order: My Brilliant Friend at 331 pages, The Story of a New Name at 475 pages, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay at 418 pages, and The Story of the Lost Child at 473 pages. The whole project is so fluid that each book flows into the next, and the division of time in The Story of the Lost Child is hardly noticed. The subtitle of this book is “Maturity and Old Age.” “Maturity” ends on page 332 with an event explaining this book’s main title, so the break between sections gives the event emphasis. The “Old Age” section’s renamed title “The Story of Bad Blood” is hardly a distinctive phrase, since it could apply to many situations throughout the novels.
After the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, readers will want to know how Elena and Nino fare, but also what happens to Elena and Lila and other major characters, like the Camorra brothers Michele and Marcello, Elena’s children, her in-laws and angry mother, as well as other childhood friends who reappear. I will not give “spoilers.” After so many pages of reading, spoilers would kill the intense pleasure of discovery. It’s difficult to tell events without telling too much. However, mentioning some of this last book’s new emphases should not spoil the reading.
If Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay was the most political of the novels, then this last book makes the politics come alive with people we know from the other books and from childhood, most specifically Nino; Nadia, the daughter of Elena’s professor and Nino’s first love; and her Communist revolutionary partner Pasquale, the carpenter’s son. With reminders of the childhood memories, there is poignancy in the overview of how these characters and others develop.
The Story of the Lost Child reveals how feminism works with motherhood and with the love of a man. At the end of the previous book, we see Elena struggling with her feminist, independent leanings and her love of Nino, and Lila admits, “We weren’t made for children.” Even Elena’s daughters say that her books and Aunt Lina (Lila) are all she cares about. But Lila dismisses Elena’s writing:
Where is it written that lives should have meaning? So she began to disparage all that struggle of mine to write. She said mockingly: Is the meaning that line of black markings that look like insect shit?
Fundamentally, Lila dislikes it, not just because Elena envisions Naples as “a nightmare of savagery and death,” but because the novel is not always a novel. Yet ambitious Elena goes beyond the bonds of friendship to regain her popularity after she has outlives her previous success. At this point, if not before, we question our loyalty to Elena, our identification through her narration, the conventional hard-working woman vs. Lila the feral, unpredictable, difficult one.
The length of these novels may be necessary to cover the span of years and characters, but sometimes the progression seems uneven, offering only occasional peaks of discovery. One particularly slow part in this last book occurs when Lila becomes fascinated by Naples’ history. A Neapolitan reader might get more out of her research. However, even this slow part is important because of what Lila sees as a pattern, because of how Elena interprets this research, and because of what happens to Lila.
One recommendation beyond this series: In order to understand the themes of abandonment and betrayal, plus the specific role of childhood dolls, the reader could benefit from reading Ferrante’s early novellas The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter. Ferrante powerfully plays out the relationships of children, and by extension, adults in the guise of dolls in the third and fourth books of the Neapolitan Novels, especially at the very end of The Story of the Lost Child.
For both kinds of readers—the committed reader and the new reader of the Neapolitan series—it’s more than worth finishing all four books, both for the immersion into the Italian history they cover, but also to completely follow the realistic ups and downs, competition and support, of a livelong female friendship.