The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
Almost exactly a year since I first picked up My Brilliant Friend, I started reading the final installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: The Story of the Lost Child. If you have been reading my reviews of the series, you will know that I have been completely engrossed by the world and characters Ferrante has created. At times, I have struggled to articulate the effect that these novels have on me: although they depict a world very different from the world I grew up in, something within the narrative had a deep resonance with me that I have experienced with few other novels, let alone an entire series. This final installment, in particular, became a narrative that I carried round with me even when I wasn’t reading the book; it was a wonderful, absorbing conclusion to a series that I will hold close to my heart.
Given where Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay finished, it would be easy to assume that The Story of the Lost Child would begin with the ramifications of Lena’s decision. Conversely, Ferrante starts her final novel in this series by bringing the narrative back to what has always been its foundation and priority: the intense and brutal friendship between Lena and Lila. Now both mothers, the novel follows Lena and Lila as they raise their children, navigating the surprises and challenges that face them in their everyday lives back in their old neighbourhood until one traumatic event fractures the world they have built together. All the secondary characters, the men in their lives, even their children, slowly fade out of the narrative as it reaches its conclusion, leaving the reader simply with the complicated and broken friendship of the two women.
From as early as the second chapter, Lena begins to unravel her true purpose in writing the story of her and Lila down as she states ‘now that I’m close to the most painful part of our story, I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me’ (p. 25). Throughout this final installment of the narrative, Lena’s present voice filters into the past more and more; she pleads with Lila to somehow step back into her world, to slip into her computer and change the very words that Lena is writing. Lena has always been searching for a way to define herself, to find some significance to her identity that goes deeper than the acclaim she has achieved with her writing. Yet her friendship with Lila has made this search confused, as she struggles to separate which thoughts belong to her and which belong to Lila. This series is a narrative of friendship but it is also a narrative of identity and the blurred edges that follow the question of how much our surroundings influence our voices. I think that, through this whole series, it has been this theme that has resonated the most with me: the introspection and search for some sort of personal significance that, in the end, leads to the realisation that sometimes the best thing to do is just let go.
The Story of the Lost Child seems to me to be the strongest installment in this series. As always, Ferrante’s writing brings the reader right into the life of this Neapolitan neighbourhood, painting a picture so clear that the dust on the street is visible. Each character is real and alive, for all their brokenness and flaws: even Pietro is given a depth to him that was sorely missing from the previous novel. For all that there are surprises at every turn in the decisions that the characters make, at no point do any of their choices feel out-of-character; Ferrante uses the surprises to reveal yet another layer to the motivations driving all these characters.
This has been a wonderful series that I have loved reading; I definitely felt a sense of loss when I finished The Story of the Lost Child and remembered that there were no further installments. However, this was an ending that I felt did the series justice, as Lena comes to terms with the implications of her friendship with Lila and the choices they both have made in their lives. I will definitely reread these at some point, with less of a gap in between each novel, although for now I am happy just to let Lena and Lila live in my memory. This is definitely a series I would recommend, although I am aware that not everyone will have the same emotional attachment to it that I do now. If you haven’t yet picked up My Brilliant Friend, I would strongly encourage you to do so.