“In what disorder we lived, how many fragments of ourselves were scattered, as if to live were to explode into splinters.”
The fourth and final novel of Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan series of novels; The Story of the Lost Child was published in the UK in September to great anticipation. For me the third novel –Those who Leave and those who Stay – although still good and very readable had been a little weaker than the first two novels.
The Story of the Lost Child picks up the story where the previous novel left off.Lila and Elena are both in their mid-thirties as the novel starts, their lives thus far have taken them in different directions, though the unspoken competitiveness between the women remains. Both these extraordinary women have been shaped in some way by the place they grew up in, and as we have watched them grow and change across four, fairly big novels – we have watched the world change too. At the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, those two little girls tripped up the steps to Don Achille’s apartment in the 1950’s. The world Lila and Elena grew up in was a very traditional one, domestic violence was accepted and expected and rarely cried much over. In The Story of the Lost Child we have come to the 1980’s – the world is changing, divorce is almost acceptable, and it’s possible to live somewhere other than the neighbourhood of streets where you were born. Of course ‘the present’ to which we return fleetingly in each novel is the early part of the 21st century – when Elena is in her sixties and Lila has apparently deliberately disappeared.
“It’s only and always the two of us who are involved, she who wants me to give her what nature and circumstances kept, I who can’t give what she demands; she who gets angry at my inadequacy and out of spite wants to reduce me to nothing, as she has done with herself, I who have written for months and months to give her a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn, calm myself.”
I sat down today, feeling rather tentative about writing this review, firstly so much has already been written about this novel in the short time since it was published I’m not sure what I can add to it (although I have been avoiding reading reviews I was aware there were many). Secondly I am reluctant to say too much – there are still people who have to read it for themselves. No spoilers though I promise.
At the end of ‘Those who Leave and those who stay’ – Elena was contemplating ending her marriage to academic, Pietro, her continuing infatuation for Nino leading her to selfishly pursue her own long held desires. Leaving her daughters and husband in Florence, she travels to Paris with Nino for a conference – and returning home it is obvious her marriage really is at an end.
Elena returns to her native Naples, ‘living in sin’ with Nino who refuses to leave his wife, Elena is thrown back into the tumultuous world of the neighbourhood where she grew up. It is a world that brings her back into more regular contact with Lila. Having embraced the newly emerging world of computers, Lila is still living and working with Enzo, her son Gennaro is growing up fast. The Solara brothers still hold the neighbourhood in their grasp, although it begins to appear that their long obsession with Lila may be at an end. Elena is still writing; and travelling extensively with her work, revelling in her success. Another successful book under her belt and an article about the neighbourhood infuriating the Solara’s, her publishers are pressurising her for more. Underneath all her efforts, all her successes lay that old fear that Lila – who left education after middle school – was always the more brilliant.
“From childhood I had given her too much importance, and now I felt as if unburdened. Finally it was clear that what I was wasn’t her, and vice versa. Her authority was no longer necessary to me, I had my own. I felt strong, no longer a victim of my origins but capable of dominating them, of giving them a shape, of taking revenge on them for myself, for Lila, for whomever.”
In their late thirties both women become pregnant again, their babies due at around the same time, this shared experience helps to bring them together even more, their friendship always fragile and volatile impacting enormously on their children too, as everybody seems to drift in and out of both homes.
I really don’t want to say too much more about the story of this fourth novel – which running to 480 pages is intricate and detailed as it chronicles the complex, ever changing relationship between these two brilliant women. For me this particular instalment started off really well, then about half way through became completely compelling and hard to put down. This series of Elena Ferrante books are hard to review – perhaps to really appreciate them one can only read them. I loved the delicate, poignant way Ferrante concluded this novel – the subtlety and brilliance of which will stay with me for a long time I think. These novels are big and vibrant, the prose luminous and satisfyingly complex – I have come to love both Lila and Elena – and neither of them are perfect (who of us is) – but they are at least – and more importantly – real.