The Neopolitan quartet traces the friendship between Elena and Lila, from their childhood in a poor neighbourhood in Naples, to their thirties, when both women are mothers but each has chosen a different path. Their lives are still inextricably linked, for better or worse, especially when it comes to the drama of a lost child.
In this final Neapolitan novel, Lila and Elena are in their mid-30s to mid-50s. Life’s whims and joys and disappointments have been experienced – and when tragedy strikes in this final installment, they will know great loss. Still, their friendship remains a central staple in both of their lives, in spite of the different paths they’ve chosen. Elena, who moved to Florence when she married, has now returned to Naples, where she continues to enjoy success as a novelist. Lila, who has become a successful entrepreneur, has never succeeded in freeing herself from Naples, but her personality is somehow mirrored in her proximity to the city: perilous, unmanageable, seductive. As they age, the women continue to clash, drift apart, reconcile, only to clash again – and in the process, Ferrante reveals new facets of their friendship.
In my review of the previous novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I commented that whatever attracted the two women to Nino Sarratore completely escaped me. So I found it humourous and satisfying to see the women’s thinking at last align with mine. Lila, for her part, ignores Sarratore, and even finds his political embarrassments amusing. Elena has this to say (LOL!):
“Then Nino arrived and all he did was talk loudly, joke, even laugh, as if we were not at his mother’s funeral. I found him large, bloated, a big ruddy man with thinning hair who was constantly celebrating himself. Getting rid of him, after the funeral, was difficult. I didn’t want to listen to him or even look at him. He gave me an impression of wasted time, of useless labor, that I feared would stay in my mind, extending into me, into everything.” (Epilogue, Ch 2)
I thoroughly enjoyed The Story of the Lost Child, and commend Ferrante for a fine conclusion to her quartet. I recommend the series highly, and endorse the audiobooks for those who like to listen: Hillary Huber is fabulous!
In this fourth and final novel, the women mature from their mid-30s into their 50s. Elena has followed the path she set for herself in the first novel and become a successful writer. She also challenges traditional views of motherhood, striving to have a career while raising her children. As always, Lila’s life has been subject to many more twists and turns. Despite her impoverished upbringing and lack of education, she is now a successful businesswoman and has found a supportive partner. She does not hesitate to share her candid opinions with Elena, even (and especially) when they touch on aspects of Elena’s life. Whether she does this out of love or rivalry is left to the reader to decide.
While reading The Story of the Lost Child, I found myself focusing on Ferrante’s literary techniques; the plot carried me along but I was alert to the way the story was being told. For example, the Neapolitan Novels are narrated by Elena, who has proven to be somewhat unreliable. She constantly questions herself, fails to spot signs of trouble or distress in others, and often grossly misinterprets the behavior of those around her. Her narrative is more focused on telling Lila’s story than on making herself look good; Elena’s selfish acts are presented in a matter-of-fact way as if she cannot see the potential consequences of her behavior.
Ferrante also repeatedly shows the good and bad sides of Lila and Elena and the ways that “good” events can have “bad” consequences, and vice versa. Sometimes she revisits a situation from a different vantage point in order to shed new light on it; for example, the “lost child” of the title, a very emotional moment in the novel, became even more so when seen from a different angle. The ending also brought surprises, making me want to re-read the series from the beginning for new details and insights. I love it when that happens and just might do so someday.
I've awaited the fourth volume with some impatience, and delayed reading it by re-reading the third volume. The story rushes through like a fast-moving stream, in a similar way to the earlier volumes, but here I found that the narrative is often mediated through the prism of writing about it. The story of the lost child is doubly distanced through Friendship, the novel within the novel - or rather the act of writing the novel within the novel, because we get it in a summary form, and as much is said about the process of writing as about its contents. I have increasingly had the feeling of mise-en-abime, like in that Escher drawing in which a hand is drawing a hand which is drawing that first hand, so that the longer you look the less you're certain which hand started the drawing, and you know at the same time that there is a third hand, invisible, that drew all this in the first place.
Beneath the surface of a traditional narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, Ferrante's novel is, well, quite novel, quite innovative. I have to admit that the passages I enjoyed the most were moments where the writing becomes self-reflexive.
That said, I also got the sense that portions of the novel were written in a hurry: very well written, but as if with the desire to complete the series as soon as possible. However, having now read twice volumes 1 through 3, I look forward to seeing how this last volume stands up to re-reading ... when I've gone long enough with Ferrante and feel the need to reread her. Because, I have to admit, I feel quite at home in her novels and in her prose.
translation from Italian by Ann Goldstein
published: 2014, translated 2015
format: 450 page paperback (with controversial Europa cover)
read: Jan 10-17
This may be my favorite set of books ever. That’s an odd thing to say and has a bit of an of-the-moment sense, but I did go and look through my five star books and there are certainly books that are better and that are more impressive in an assortment of ways. But nothing else so fully captured me in such a strong way as I was reading, or at least nothing in this kind of way…this kind of way being something I can’t quite describe. The emotional attachment, the feeling to getting lost and floating away, the weakening that makes me as reader more susceptible to everything in the story, the lasting impression and the sense of wanting to carry that impression around and to stay within it, the sense that something really meaningful and special is not here exactly, but lying around the edges, almost ungraspable; or perhaps lying obscured in plain sight. And all in this kind of way. I’m getting overboard…
As a single book, this book 4 leaves a shadow over the whole series. It is, to me, about disappointment. I was listening to the [[George Packer]] describe [[Raymond Carver]] recently, and how, in Packer’s words, he writes of characters “gone bust” and brings to mind the disillusioned, those past the prime of life with unfulfilled and now unfulfillable promise. Elena, looking back, even as she will beautify each moment, ultimately cheapens everything she herself has accomplished. And her greatest disappointment is Lila.
Lila is the exceptional character who makes this series special, the brilliant friend in the first book, even if she’s the one who calls Elena that. She is a perfect hero in that fictional sense that writers can create, and her superpower seems to be understanding and perception. She evolves in these books from super-learner who can take on subjects and immediately penetrate their core meanings into one who can do the same to people. Or…is this just Elena’s imagination. She will show natural design expertise, artistic masterliness, writing power, a natural understanding of how to rebuild language from 1’s and 0’s. But she is more than anything one who can penetrate people to their core. She is manipulator undone by herself, but also by a naivety towards forces just too confounding for her to foresee and manage.
It’s this manipulative skill and its destructive trail that brings in the witch comparison, specifically Euripides’ Medea. This ability to get to core ultimately unsteadys her in a way that character Elena Greco cannot and never does fully understand, at least no where near as well as author Elena Ferrante does. Because this insight comes with a Faustian cost. If you can see that deeply, what you may ultimately see is there is nothing. No meaning, no purpose, no truth. And if you can see and understand this at such a deep level that the knowledge embraces you, so that you feel that hole in center, hopeless, then…then I think you have Lila. She comes across as chaotic, emotionally unstable, self-destructive, and manipulative. Emotionally she goes in and out of the world. And, when she is able to harness her strengths and use them she can be magnificent but also devastating to everything and everyone she touches. This is how I see her. A good person with too much insight, too much understanding, who is never able to master enough, be stable enough, and really see far enough along the horizon. Instead of a steady stream of life, she goes in fits and starts and wrong turns and spectacular crashes. Society, Naples, mafia, love, poverty, prejudice, and, most significantly, misogyny, ultimately tie her down to a banal reality.
Elena, our narrator, isn’t as reliable as she seems on the surface. I won’t say she doesn’t lie, but she gives the impression that she is making every effort at truth. But she doesn’t understand what lies beneath the surface of her own words, just as, in life, she couldn’t see futures that were sometimes so plainly there. In this way, she cannot get Lila the way that Lila can understand her, she cannot penetrate that outer shell. It takes her a life to learn what Lila always seemed to know.
The feminism theme is one I’m hesitant to get into, but is prominent here. This global microcosm of Naples is a man’s world with a man’s power structure. And all its problems and injustice lie within this context. Women can only navigate through - by looks, sex, manipulation, marriage, reproduction and, perhaps, by education. The social mores are as confining as this mafia elements, and in many ways they parallel each other in their effects and cruelty. With Elena and Lila, Ferrante attacks this world with two women, one of whom is smarter, stronger, more forceful than any other character in the book. They break with tradition only to see that the tradition is only barely played out in reality. Its another facade, brought in to shame women into submission…but not men.
These are books of atmosphere, and their strength lies in how Ferrante creates, twists and evolves the this atmospheric sense. And it is strongly feminine. It’s highs are women managing this mans’ world, and many their lows are failures somehow unique to women. Ferrante shows the costs of this on these female characters in many different ways. But what she creates seems accessible to any reader.
While the previous novels each spanned several years, this final one spans decades, roughly from the eighties into the 21st century, this incorporating both middle and old age of its protagonists. This shows how close Ferrante’s narrative nestles up against experience, and I mean not only in its content but in the specific way it is told – here, it mirrors the way time passes at varying speeds during different ages; a year is a very long time for a child who has not lived through many, but it passes almost without being noticed for someone who has experienced a considerable amount of them. I think everyone has noticed how time passes faster as we grow older, and Ferrante lets her series of novels reflect that structurally by giving her protagonists’ early years more room than their later ones. I am trying to avoid spoilers here, as this novel still is fairly recent and it continues to deploy a soap-operatic narrative strategy to keep the reader hooked, so I won’t be giving away any details of what is happening in The Story of the Lost Child (not that I am big on plot summaries in any case), and confine myself to saying that the feminist / political element is receding almost completely into the background (almost, but not quite – and the reader should be so sensitized by the previous novels to sense its presence even when the narrative does not shine a spotlight on it) in favour of the private circumstances of and relations between Lila and Lena.
That relationship has been at the core of the novels throughout, of course, and not the least impressive thing to admire about the Neapolitan Novels is how it has been changing constantly. Weirdly, that is something where soap opera and psychological realism meet – the first because it needs to keep the story going and thus can’t allow anything to remain static: basically, soap operas are in constant flux, there are continuous reveals of supposedly hidden sides to a character’s personality which in turn determine their various relationships. While that kind of layer cake psychology (as I like to call it) is not exactly realistic, it might end up looking very much like realism once you follow a relationship over decades as it happens in Ferrante’s novels, a period during which extreme changes in any kind of relationship are realistically almost inevitable. The difference between the two is of course that psychological realism is bound to stay within the bounds of plausibility while a soap opera emphatically is not limited by that – but this difference certainly is gradual rather than absolute, and it may be argued that in the final analysis plausibility is just another literary trope. From whichever perspective you view it, the friendship between LIla and Lena never ceases to fascinate, the way their lives revolves around each other, both drawn to and repelled by each other like twin stars, the way each mirrors the other’s hopes and desires, one always seeming to have attained what the other is lacking, and finally the way the course of this friendship traces the developments in Italian from the 1950s into the 21st century.
Like the previous volumes, The Story of the Lost Child pays close attention to language – the way it is used to not only mark geographical but also class distinctions, and how command of language, knowing how to write or talk well, can give some degree of power which is not bound to social status or financial wealth (although attaining that command will of course be greatly facilitated if one’s family is influential or wealthy). A power which can also be used to hurt – something that paradoxically not the writer Lena but Lila appears to be more aware of, maybe because, as the narrator keeps reminding us, the Neapolitan dialect Lila is speaking is inherently aggressive. So Lila attempts to erase herself out of existence like a failed novel while Lena finally finishes the memoirs of her friendship which she started at the beginning of A Brilliant Friend and publishes them, knowing this will hurt her friend’s feeling even as it might revive her failing career as an author, and so the book comes full circle in yet another regard, as that book is possibly the one we have been reading, this causing the series to metafictionally turn back upon itself. Or does it? The book Lena publishes is a referred to as a slim volume, and slim is something the Neapolitan Novels certainly are not. The circle does not quite close, there is a gap left, and in a way it is that gap which all four novels (all but the first of which are designated as “Storia” in their original Italian titles, by the way) has been revolving al the time, spinning its tale of friendship and power, of love and violence in that small but unclosable space between reality and fiction.
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.
Elena Greco is the narrator, telling you the story of her life-long relationship with Lina. The first novel began when the final novel finishes, with Lina disappearing and Elena not being terribly worried about it. In more than one way, this fourth novel brings us back to the first, closing the circle on this sixty year friendship between Elena and Lina.
Like the other three novels in this series, the writing is simple, direct and confessional. Ferrante is not trying to write epigrammatic sentences or highly stylized paragraphs that will be copied and pasted onto pretty pictures and shared in memes for the rest of the digital era. She is a naturalistic writer, her words seem like a conversation sometimes with the reader and sometimes with herself. Taken as a whole, this tetralogy is an amazing accomplishment, but even more stunning is the ability of each work to stand alone, a cohesive story in itself.
Elena and Lila are fascinating. Two brilliant women, Elena, the well-educated one, is a successful novelist and political thinker who writes opinion pieces, is on television discussion panels and active in literary and political circles of the elite. Lila never went past fifth grade, married young, worked in brutalizing jobs and struggled for years for self-determination and independence and dignity. And yet, Elena always seems to envy Lila and we can understand why. Lila has a life force that burns bright – with ambition, pride, anger, justice, passion. She is always living. Elena often finds inspiration in Lila’s ideas, too, though sometimes it seems that Lila thinks and Elena writes.
And Lila envies Elena sometimes, while also admiring her, pitying her, and feeling contempt for her. The one thing that they don’t feel for each other is indifference and their life is a constant orbit, sometimes closers, sometimes far apart.
This last novel tells of their mid life and later years. We learn of the great tragedy that is mentioned in this first novel and see the connections that Elena makes with that past. This life is as tumultuous and violent as their younger years, Naples is just as corrupt and it seems that everything is an endlessly repeating cycle.
5pawsI enthusiastically recommend the entire series. Many series begin strong and peter out by the end, but this feels like it was really just one book, written all of one piece, and then just broken up into four in order not to intimidate us from reading it. I love these two women and will miss them now the book is done. I want more.
As a whole, this four-novel series, with its two unforgettable main characters, is an achievement that should be shouted from the rooftops. Elena Ferrante is a wonderful writer.
Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought.
She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.
I was really angry.
We'll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write -- all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.
The poor, working-class neighborhood in Naples in which the girls grew up, one rife with corruption and nearly incestuous family ties, is a kind of collective antagonist to Lila and Elena's struggle to survive and succeed in the tumultuous last half of the 20th century.
Ferrante plays with warring philosophies and ideologies, class conflict, Italian politics, the student and worker protests of the the 1960s and 70s, the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, the sea-change in economy and work brought about by the introduction of computers as integral aspects of the friendship and competition between Lila and Elena. The reader sympathizes first with one, and then the other, but rarely both at the same time, as their lives follow very different paths, that remain tangled together.
Ferrante's Neapolitan series is a great read, and I expect the ideas and memories generated will remain with me for a long time.
Ms. Ferrante really captures the uncertainty and perspective of youth, and her characters develop more mature voices and perspective as the series evolves. She also captures life in a close-knit neighbourhood really well. The neighbourhood provides not only the setting, but the mood of the series...it is almost a character in itself. A central theme is whether one can break away from the place, people and expectations they come from.
The relationship between Lila and Lena is so well portrayed. It's complex...they are so tightly bound to each other at times by love and other times they almost hate each other. Yet there is a loyalty and trust that they each can rely on. The telling of this relationship is, I think, the highlight of the series and evidence of Ms. Ferrante's great skill as a writer who understands people.
A great story that gets richer as you proceed through the four books. By the end, you will really know and care about these characters. Worth reading all 1,693 pages!
With the exception of a few brief moments in the books during which Elena, the book’s narrator, addresses the reader about her current feelings regarding her old friend Lila, the books offer a chronologically linear progression of the pair’s more than fifty-year relationship. Seldom has a relationship between literary characters been more deeply explored than this one. Each book in the series comes in at around 400 pages, but the Neapolitan Series is easier to read than one might imagine. My Brilliant Friend, beginning as it does (after a brief word from the sixtyish Elena) when its two chief characters are preschoolers, is both charming and intriguing - and when it ends, some four hundred or so pages later, most readers will want to know more. And Elena Ferrante has a lot more to say about Elena, Lila, their working class families, their friends, their lovers, their children, and the lives the two little girls will live during the next six decades.
Bottom line, this is a fictional study of the kind of longtime friendship that can shape – for good or for bad - a person’s entire life. Even as children, Elena and Lila recognized in each other the best that their neighborhood had to offer. They were among the very brightest in their local school, they were often the most adventurous, and neither was much willing to put up with the foolishness of those around them. They simply could not imagine staying in the neighborhood forever, and they looked forward to the time when they could finally begin living their real lives.
It would not, however, be easy for either of them to make their escape from the neighborhood. Elena and Lila were, as it turns out, as much rivals as they were friends. At times, it can even be said that they were more rival than friend to each other. Their competitiveness drove each of them to achieve more than likely would have been possible if they had never met, but it may have been at too great a cost for them to enjoy what they achieved. Only they can answer that question.
Elena and Lila are two of the most memorable characters I have encountered in a long time, and their often-tragic relationship leaves the reader with a lot to ponder about life, fate, and trying to go home again after living in a bigger world.
Everybody is killed in the old neighborhood, and in the 90s and 00s the ladies age well. Elena thinks about Lila sending her a book about Naples, but it doesn't happen. The novel ends with Lila having disappeared totally in Naples.
(Anne) This is the last of the Neapolitan novels, and for me perhaps the most satisfying. But don't expect neat resolutions and orderly endings. Like life, these four novels (or is it this single novel?) are messy, disorganized, surprising, the mundane interrupted with flashes of brilliance, and this volume is all of those and more. It brings into focus some of the ambiguities that stalked the earlier novels -- who, for example, is actually telling this tale? -- and brings the relationship of the two central characters full circle. Like the other three novels, I loved it, and look forward to reading it again.
I'm glad I read this series, and I enjoyed the books, but my enthusiasm was waning a little by the end. While the core of the series is the relationship of the two friends, and plot is not central, I was disappointed by the lack of plot finalisation in this book. I can't help thinking that if plot was to be optional, then the plot scene setting at the start of the first book (Lila gone missing) should have been omitted.
But I quibble - great characterisation (and the novelty of Lila is marvelous) and great moody background of Naples, the culture of honour, and Italy more generally.
Read Jan 2017
Overall, a worthy conclusion for the series. Yes, I did enjoy this one, but not enough to lavish glowing praise on it or have any desire to re-read the series.