The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Once again, Elena Ferrante brings the intimate friendship of her principle characters, Elena and Lila, to life, though much of what occurs in this final novel in her Neapolitan series is harmful to their friendship. Elena rushes into her relationship with Nino Sarratore, all the the while trying to suppress her suspicion of Lila’s disapproval. Indeed, much of what Elena does and thinks and even writes in her growing career as a novelist and intellectual is shaped and conditioned either by Lila’s explicit critique or by Elena’s imagined version of what Lila might say. And so Elena acts both for and against her childhood friend, desperate to attain some form of autonomy even whilst she foregoes it in her anxiety. Elena has moved back to Naples, though not the old neighbourhood, with her two daughters. And it is motherhood that comes to dominate the themes here as first Elena and then Lila herself become pregnant. Their shared condition is emblematic of just how entwined their lives have been throughout whether they were conscious of it or not.

Eventually Elena moves with her now three daughters into the flat above Lila’s in the old neighbourhood. Here the ties with the past are strong. But so too are the ties with elements from the earlier three novels. Ferrante weaves the stories together so tightly that everything in the current novel feels as though it might have been there in the very first one, just hidden around a corner. The lives of Elena and Lila, their lovers and children, and their friends from the old neighbourhood breathe with fire. And once that fire catches you, it is nearly impossible to put the book down.

Ferrante’s Elena narrates the whole of this volume but she is not spared. Even when she is most critical of her friend, the reader sees through her fears to the self-doubt at its root. While not an unreliable narrator, we come to see her view as slanted, as given to jealousy and pettiness as any other, and so she becomes, unsympathetically, even more believable. It is a remarkable balancing act. By the end, I found myself reading ever more slowly, fearing with each page the inevitably loss of this brilliant friendship. Fortunately, I can start again almost immediately, which is surely one of the great blessings of novels as fine as these. Highly recommended.

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