Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of The Lost Child

The Story of the Lost ChildIn scarcely 30 days, I did not so much read Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels as consume them, enthralled by the ever-expanding story of Elena and Lina, rendered by Ferrante in minute and painfully honest detail. Nothing I have read in contemporary literature provides an adequate comparison to what she has accomplished in these four novels, beginning with the exposition of the rich and strained friendship between the two protagonists. In the fourth and final novel in the series, The Story Of The Lost Child, Lina and Elena have become parents themselves, and one of the dominant themes of the series – the clash between tradition and modernity – is portrayed from a vastly different perspective: now it is the protagonists who cling to the past, who fear the future, who hector their children into good behavior. So she has taken us full circle, from girlhood to maturity, and when the final page is turned, the reader discovers that Ferrante has not so much told a story as unfolded a life.

At the novel’s outset, Elena has followed Lina’s life path by abandoning her husband, the kind but dull academic Pietro, with whom she has two daughters, in favor of her childhood love and Lina’s ex-lover, Nino Sarratore. Her first experience of the affair is one of freedom, as she temporarily abandons her family to follow Nino to various academic conferences across Italy:

In Monteplier [at her family home] it seemed to me evident how restrictive, at thirty-two, being a wife and mother might be. And in all those days charged with love I felt, for the first time, freed from the chains I had accumulated over the years – those of my origins, those I had acquired through academic success, those derived from the choices I had made in life, especially marriage.

Simultaneous to her extramarital dalliance, Elena takes an interest in feminism, writing a tract on how “men create women” (a theme, in feminism, as least as old as Simone de Beauvoir) and taking various speaking engagements:

I talked about how, since I was a girl, I had observed in my mother and other women the most humiliating aspects of family life, of motherhood, of subjection to males. I talked about how, for love of a man, one could be driven to be guilty of every possible infamy toward other women, toward children.

She sees her new lifestyle as not only an escape from tradition but an evolution, a path towards something better:

Look, I said to myself, the couple collapses, the family collapses, every cultural cage collapses, every possible social-democratic accommodation collapses, and meanwhile everything tries violently to assume another form that up to now would have been unthinkable: Nino and me, the sum of my children and his, the hegemony of the working class, socialism and Communism, and above all the unforeseen subject, the woman, I. Night after night, I went around recognizing myself in an idea that suggested general disintegration and, at the same time, new composition.

The first hint that this loosening of the social bonds will not endure comes from Elena’s mother, whose response is predictably negative but nonetheless shocking in its violence:

Damn me that I didn’t break your legs when you were a child. You have a husband of gold who makes you a lady in this beautiful city, who loves you, who has given you two daughters, and you repay him like this, bitch? Come here, I gave birth to you and I’ll kill you.

The conflict is one of perception: Elena’s mother sees what Pietro, her husband, can give her – a comfortable lifestyle, a respectable name, a family – while Elena sees only what he cannot give her. Gradually, however, Nino is revealed to be unreliable. He lies about leaving his wife, and in fact continues to sleep with her. Later still, it is discovered that he is a serial adulterer, flitting from woman to woman, peddling empty promises of commitment. Elena eventually ends their relationship, but only after conceiving him a child, a daughter.

As Elena’s domestic life explodes, Lina finds a kind of equilibrium. She never again marries, but she takes up with the devoted Enzo, with whom she founds a computer software company. Together they achieve incredible financial success, and also conceive a daughter, born in the same month as Elena’s. The twin births reconcile the two friends to each other, bringing them closer together after years of distance, but this closeness also brings their differences into stark relief. Here is Lina, pregnant with her child, describing her difficulties with closeness, her distrust of affection:

Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad. Gennaro [her son] makes me feel guilty, this thing here in my belly is a responsibility that cuts me, scratches me. Loving courses together with hating, and I can’t, I can’t manage to solidify myself around any goodwill.

The key word, in the context of the series, is solidify, for Lina will often talk about about what she calls “dissolving boundaries,” moments when reality itself seems to lose its substance, becoming unreliable. Contrast Lina’s fundamental insecurity with how Elena describes herself:

I gave myself weight, in other words, I knew how to do that, whatever happened. Everything that struck me – my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake – would pass, and I, what I among those I was accumulating, would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it.

The only point of stability in Lina’s life has been her friendship with Elena, and Elena, for her part, drew from her friend the confidence and inspiration she lacked. This symbiosis alternatively draws them together and tears them apart, makes them uniquely capable of understanding one another and uniquely vulnerable to each other.

This brings us to the mystery of the series, revealed in the first chapter of the first book, when Lina has disappeared without a trace. We never learn where she has gone, or if she will return; Ferrante elects only to hint at her motive. Here is Elena again, describing Lina early on in the final novel:

However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being, on pain of her resentment and her fury, she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth, and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

Elena, the narrator, publishes a story about Lina called A Friendship. She does so partly because, in her words: “I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last. I thought it was my task. I was convinced that she herself, as a girl, had assigned it to me.” Is this, ultimately, what the Neapolitan novels are, a 1500-page tribute to a lost friend, a prose In Memoriam? They have that elegiac quality, certainly, but an abundance of life as well. The combination renders the series at once tragic and uplifting, and I say, without hesitation, that these books are unqualified masterpieces of modern fiction.