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Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of "The Story of the Lost Child" by Elena Ferrante

4 Stars

This is the culmination of the Neapolitan series of books.  At the beginning, Elena has left her marriage to pursue a relationship with Nino so much of the first half of the book deals with how that relationship evolves.  Lila, in the meantime, has been successful in starting a business in the computer field.  Eventually, the two friends end up living in the same building in Naples in the neighbourhood where they first met and becoming pregnant at the same time.  Then tragedy strikes.

A number of conflicts are experienced by both Elena and Lila.  Both must try to balance career and a family and family life and personal freedom.  Elena, for example, bemoans the restrictiveness of being a wife and mother and speaks of the chains of marriage (26).  The women also struggle with reconciling strongly held beliefs (about women’s roles, for example) with the compromises required in their daily lives.   

Motherhood is examined in detail.  Elena especially struggles with that role.  She is really not a very good mother; her career and her relationship with Nino take precedence over her daughters.  One of her children even tells her, “It’s impossible to have a real relationship with you, the only things that count are work and Aunt Lina; there’s nothing that’s not swallowed up inside them” (418). Of course, Elena and Lila compete over motherhood as they do over almost everything else.  Each wants her youngest child to be better than the youngest child of her friend.  And Lila has no difficulty chastising Elena for poor parenting:  “she took every opportunity to show me that, because I was always traveling around Italy, I neglected [the girls] with serious consequences for their upbringing” (320).

So nothing has changed in the relationship between the two.  They may support each other one but they are also fiercely jealous rivals.  It is interesting that Elena sees her relationship with Lila repeated in the relationship between her daughter Imma and Lila’s daughter Tina:  “[Imma] was the slave of Tina’s joyful expansiveness, of her elevated capacity for verbalization, of the way she aroused tenderness, admiration, affection in everyone, especially me.  Although my daughter was pretty, and intelligent, beside Tina she turned dull, her virtues vanished, and she felt this deeply” (321).

In fact, one of the themes of the book is the connections between past and present.  It is not just Imma and Tina that repeat the behaviours of their mothers; Elena often complains about her mother’s coldness but she herself feels distanced from her three children and Lila tells her she doesn’t think enough about her daughters (361).  Elena even develops a minor limp like her mother.  Nino who hated his father’s womanizing becomes a philanderer as well.  Even minor characters suffer fates similar to their parents: Pasquale ends up in prison like his father, and the Solara sons have the same end as Manuela.  The resentments of old betrayals do not fade. 

In my review of the first novel in the series, I wrote about Elena and Lila being foil characters, but the subsequent novels have shown that observation to be incorrect.  Elena says she was “likable, [Lila] malicious” (157) and claims Lila was guilty of “defensive manipulation of persons and things” (179), but Elena can be as cruel and manipulative.  The best evidence is Elena’s decision to write A Friendship, the book for which she takes devastating events from Lila’s life and uses them for her fiction when her writing career is flagging.  She does this knowing she is “violating an unwritten agreement” (463) but then wonders “Where had I gone wrong?” (465)! 

As with the other books, the title is very apt.  Who is the lost child?  It seems to point obviously to the child who goes missing, but there are so many lost children.  Rino becomes a lost child.  All three of Elena’s daughters are in some ways lost to their mother, as Elena acknowledges:  “Was it possible that while I was devoting myself to making literature they were getting lost?” (271).  And aren’t Elena and Lila lost as well?  As indicated from the beginning, Lila has chosen to disappear.  More significantly, Elena claims to have learned that “Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them” (451), yet she doesn’t so the two friends are lost to each other. 

This book has appeared on several Best of 2015 Lists and deservedly so.  It is a great ending to the quartet, taking the reader full circle to the beginning of the saga.  The novel makes me want to go back to My Brilliant Friend and start all over again.