And so we come to the end of Elena Ferrante’s epic story of the lifelong friendship of two Neapolitan women. In The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante continues to write on themes of feminism, politics, family, and community dynamics through her memorable characters. Book Four sees Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo into middle age and beyond, with their complicated relationships to creativity, men, their children and each other. This book also brings the reader back around to the mystery introduced in Book One: what has happened to Lila? Where has she disappeared to and why?
At the end of Book Three, our narrator Elena has made a momentous decision to leave her husband and children for her childhood love Nino Sarratore. Elena’s mother, Lila, and the Airotas (husband Pietro’s wealthy, intellectual, and socially connected family) all deplore this decision, and Elena ends up cut off from most of the people who have known and helped her. Her mother-in-law Adele steps in to raise daughters Dede and Elsa while Elena promotes her newest book, and Elena, like many working single mothers, feels guilt over her absence and her preference for a career over being a stay-at-home parent; Elena likes writing and traveling, she likes speaking to crowds and she’s good at it. She becomes recognized as an authority on feminist issues, yet she finds herself in the same kind of submissive and subordinate relationship with Nino that she had had with Pietro.
I didn’t know how to give myself substance except by modeling myself on Nino. I was incapable of being a model for myself.
Eventually, circumstances force Elena to make hard decisions regarding her children and her relationship with Nino. Elena moves back to Naples with Dede and Elsa and re-establishes a relationship with Lila, who seems fixated on getting Elena back. While Elena is wary of becoming close to Lila because of past hurts, Lila helps with the children while Elena writes and travels, and both women become pregnant at the same time.
In Naples, Elena’s creativity blooms again and she experiences success and fame as a writer, but as always, she feels that Lila is her superior. Much of Ferrante’s writing has to do with what it is to be a writer, including the insecurities. Elena has spent much of her life in Lila’s shadow, but this seems to be a place that she has placed herself. Just as she subordinated herself to the men in her life, she does the same with Lila. It’s true that Lila, when she puts her mind to something, can be incredibly creative and successful, a genius even. But Lila is not a writer and is not ambitious. These differences in personality come to the fore in the wake of two momentous events. First, while both women are pregnant, a devastating earthquake hits Naples (real event, November 1980) and Elena discovers the fragility of Lila’s mental state and her fear of “dissolving boundaries.” She tells Elena,
The only problem has always been the disquiet of my mind. I can’t stop it, I always have to do, redo, cover, uncover, reinforce, and then suddenly undo, break.
Loving courses together with hating, and I can’t manage to solidify myself around any goodwill.
… there is always a solvent that acts slowly, with a gentle heat, and undoes everything.
Instability frightens Lila and what she wants is control — over people, events, etc. Lila has never left Naples but later makes a point of knowing the history of every street and landmark there, the endless cycle of decline and rise throughout history. Elena, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to leave their neighborhood, knows little about what happens there even when she lives there, and when the earthquake hits, she is not mentally shaken like Lila.
I felt that in me fear could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery steam of melting matter that I imagined inside the earthly globe, and the fear it provoked in me, settled in my mind in orderly sentences…. I gave myself weight…. I knew how to do that, whatever happened.
The other momentous event is the disappearance of Lila’s child (hence the title of this volume). Four-year-old Tina disappears from the crowded market one day and not a trace of her is found. Was it the Solara family’s doing? Michele Solara had never made secret his love and desire for Lila and she had never made secret her hatred for him. There’s a long and ugly history there. Moreover, Lila’s computer company did work for the Solaras and as a result, Lila has information on their dirty dealings in Naples. Were the Solaras involved? Is it payback for the Elena’s article about Neapolitan politics and the Solara family, written with Lila? Whatever the case, Lila never recovers from this loss and becomes increasingly erratic and hostile toward those close to her — her partner Enzo, son Rino, Elena and Elena’s daughters. In the years following this tragedy, as families fall or get pulled apart, Lila develops her obsession with the history of Naples, and Elena’s insecurities as a writer arise again. She worries that Lila will write one book and it will be so incredibly good, that all of Elena’s works will simply fade by comparison. Part of Elena realizes this is foolish thinking, but she is starting to feel irrelevant as a writer and more than anything wants to leave her mark on the world and be remembered. Lila, on the other hand, doesn’t want to leave a trace of herself. Her favorite key on the computer is “delete.” She tells Elena,
To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don’t even have the desire to live, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have.
Once Lila and Elena have entered their 50s, and Elena’s children have gone away college, she moves to Turin for work and keeps in touch with Lila only periodically. After a family gathering where Elena’s daughter makes her feel irrelevant and obsolete as a writer, Elena, who still thinks Lila might write a book about Naples and the disappearance of Tina, breaks a promise to Lila (not to write about her or their neighborhood) and writes about their relationship in a story called “A Friendship.” It seems a selfish thing to do and Elena justifies it to herself by thinking that Lila might actually appreciate it, or be angry for a while and then tell her later what a terrible story it was. Elena feels writing this story will make Lila last, that Lila is so brilliant, she deserves to last and not be erased from history.
There is this presumption, in those who feel destined for art and above all literature: we act as if we had received an investiture, but in fact no one has ever invested us with anything, it is we who have authorized ourselves….
Elena’s story is a huge success. Lila disappears with all of her possessions and cannot be found, which brings us back to the opening of Ferrante’s first book. At the end of this novel, an event occurs that leaves the reader wondering about Lila, her feelings for Elena, and ultimately what kind of person she really is. I found it to be a perfect and unexpected end to this saga.
These four novels would make for incredible book club discussions. I haven’t even touched on the relationships between Elena, her mother and her mother-in-law, or her tense and problematic relationships with her daughters. Nor have I touched on the Italian political situation of the 1970s and 1980s, which is an undercurrent of this novel. What I find so powerful about Ferrante’s work is this telling of several decades of history from the women’s point of view; the impact of political and social developments such as feminism on family, on friendships, on individual women who had to work out for themselves how these changes would work in their lives. As mentioned in a previous review, I think of Ferrante as a modern day Tolstoy. Her writing, her ability to manage a large caste of characters, and her incorporation of the sweep of historical events and change into a plot that is intimate and personal — absolutely amazing. Like War and Peace, Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels make for an engrossing soap opera that you don’t want to put down and hate to see end.