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Like other readers who’ve recently “discovered” the pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante — those of us who tore through the first three of her Neapolitan novels like 9-year-olds reading by flashlight under the bedcovers -- I looked forward with some trepidation to “The Story of the Lost Child,” the final volume of the extraordinary quartet that includes “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.” Eager as I was to read it, I didn’t want the story to end.
But Ferrante brings the Neapolitan series to an unexpectedly sad, provocative close in “The Story of the Lost Child.” It is a worthy conclusion to the sweeping saga of a 60-year friendship between the sober, studious Elena Greco, and her “terrible, dazzling” friend Lila Cerullo, who meet as girls in post-war Italy.
It opens as Elena, now a successful writer living in Turin, learns from Lila’s son Rino that his 66-year-old mother has vanished. Exasperated, she sits down to write the story of their “splendid, shadowy friendship” -- something she promised Lila she would never do. Elena’s only concern is that Lila, somehow, will enter her computer and sabotage the tale.
“The Story of the Lost Child” is subtitled “Maturity, Old Age.” Like the previous novels, it is narrated by Elena, who warns that it is “the most painful part of our story.” Spanning 30 years, it picks up where “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” left off, with Elena fleeing her husband Pietro and their young daughters Dede and Elsa, to be with Nino, the love of her life, and resume her promising writing career.
Elena’s is a wrenching choice for a woman in mid-1970s Italy (where divorce wasn’t legal until 1970, and adultery was decriminalized only five years later). And while this phase of her “chaotic rebellion” against her origins plays well with left-leaning academic friends and the feminists who turn out at her author appearances, her decision earns the enmity of family and friends. “You’re an idiot!” Lila shouts over the phone, and adds: “Think of the harm you’re doing to your daughters.”
Elena thinks continually about her daughters in the book’s early, somewhat tiresome chapters. As besotted as a teenager, she admits she’s embarrassed that she is jeopardizing her relationships with Dede and Elsa “for a little fame and love for Nino.” But that doesn’t stop her from moving with her daughters to upscale Naples to be near him. She vows to keep her distance from her family and friends — particularly Lila, now a computer entrepreneur and a person of increasing power and influence in the neighborhood. Fortunately, she reunites with Lila, who adds verve and nerve to what had been largely Elena’s somewhat self-indulgent story.
The Neapolitan novels are most often described as a story of lifelong female friendship. It’s an accurate but inadequate depiction of the symbiosis between the fiercely competitive Lila and Elena, whose relationship is more akin to the fervid bonds between certain sisters, mothers and daughters or lovers.
As single mothers now in their mid-30s, Elena and Lila become pregnant within weeks of one another, and give birth to baby girls. They raise their daughters side-by-side, just as they took care of dolls when they were children. (Their dolls, introduced in an early, pivotal scene in “My Brilliant Friend,” reappear more than once in the fourth novel — a testimony to Ferrante’s intricate and exquisitely executed plotting.)
Elena decides to return to the old neighborhood — a place, she has come to realize, that stirs her imagination and enhances her fiction. She moves to an apartment upstairs from Lila, who willingly stands in when Elena is too consumed with writing, deadlines and travel to mother her three girls. Having never shaken the conviction that that her work is a pale imitation of the splendid stories Lila concocted as a child — and those she may yet write — Elena also wants to keep Lila close.
Lila and Elena came of age in a poor sector of a city marvelously rich in character and color. They live now in a depleted neighborhood where peeling paint barely covers urban decay. Crime and political corruption have sabotaged prosperity and promise in a once-bustling metropolis that is now lawless, dissolute.
Friends of Elena and Lila since childhood suffer and die well before their time. Alfonso, a beloved schoolmate who is gay, is beaten to death, his body tossed into the sea. A once beautiful childhood friend, Gigliola, now grossly overweight and bloated, dies of a heart attack in a churchyard garden. Lila’s older brother, a heroin addict, dies sitting upright, his eyes open, in an abandoned railway car. Pasquale, a lifelong friend and communist activist, is imprisoned indefinitely for crimes he committed with Nadia, whose upper-class status and connections secure her release.
Class distinctions are never far from the surface in the Neapolitan novels, and they feature prominently in “The Story of the Lost Child,” which underscores the difficulty — or impossibility — of escaping one’s origins. Respected and well-educated Elena, carries her childhood impoverishment with her when she moves among the educated and privileged circles of Florence, Genoa and Milan. Though a bestselling author and respected writer, she remains uncertain of her intelligence and achievement; her dread that Lila will outshine her endures, even as they reach their autumn years.
But Elena’s books and accomplishments have left, if not a legacy, an impression in the world. Not so the preternaturally gifted Lila, who lacks the education that might have helped her realize her extraordinary intelligence and talents. After suffering a tragic loss, Lila’s charge sputters. She wants to disappear; to remove all traces of herself. She seems to have accomplished that. But in Elena’s story of their friendship, she lives on.
The final installation is in some ways weaker than other volumes in the series. Freighted with 30-year time span, it inevitably lacks the vivacity, the bombast of the earlier books. There are too many characters and plotlines to resolve.
But “The Story of the Lost Child” brings a masterwork by one of the more gifted and beguiling writers of our time to a satisfying conclusion. Rather than mourning the loss of Ferrante’s exquisite Neapolitan novels, I marvel at achievement in bringing them to life. And the coda at the end of the epic tale of Lila and Elena has stayed with me for days.
A former arts and culture reporter for The Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix, Maureen Dezell is a freelance arts journalist, ARTery contributor and a senior editor at Boston College.