The Neapolitan Quartet’s Triumphant Last Installment
Like her three previous Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante’s concluding volume, The Story of the Lost Child, is ferociously, compulsively readable. Divided into two novellas and an epilogue, it has a relatively simple plot – two best friends in a tough Naples neighborhood become pregnant at the same time and raise their daughters together – but the pace is dramatically heightened by dozens of intense little plot-hooks and startling revelations. The tale is laced with earthquakes and death threats, sibling betrayals and old animosities. Ferrante is a master class storyteller, and knows just how much to tell every step of the way.
Nothing in this Neapolitan neighborhood stays the same for long, and Elena’s best friend, Lila, is seen as the only one capable of putting the neighborhood right. Love and marriage come and go, and friends who grew up together continue to switch partners like a dance. More mercurial than anyone is Lila, and yet the strongest bond in the quartet is her almost animalistic devotion to Elena.
At the center of the Neapolitan quartet, what holds them together and breathes so much life into them, is Ferrante’s enormous heart, her understanding and forgiveness. She’s wise enough to see all the contradictions inside her characters, but compassionate enough to bring living people to life with all their human flaws and shortcoming and still make us care about them passionately as they grow older, fall in love, hurt one another and are hurt. Her characters are fiercely alive, prone to sudden and violent changes of heart. The man who slugs Lila in the face is the same man who orders the search for Lila’s missing child. One reads Ferrante helplessly for this sheer unpredictable, volatile, constantly mutating sense of human beings.
As well as being repeatedly surprising, her characters remain true in spite of all their contradictions and mistakes. Lila is one of the most complex and vibrantly alive characters in modern fiction. She literally grows and changes before the reader’s eyes. As two characters who are perfect foils for each other, Elena and Lila face the unpredictable turmoil of their intertwined lives in constantly revealing ways. There’s a surprise on almost every page.
As in life, the characters who will change the destiny of Elena and Lila are familiar faces often known long in advance, seen as a minor friend or a business acquaintance, the fruit seller’s son or the grocer’s boy, who suddenly steps onto the stage of their lives and utterly changes it.
Not until the conclusive pages of Part One, two-thirds of the way through the novel, does the title suddenly make horrifying, heartbreaking sense. Out of that shock Part Two opens a decade later, with some seismic surprises. The entire novel is as intriguing and rich and as heartbreaking as real life.
Not only is it a monument to a life-spanning friendship, the novel is also a love song to Naples, that “great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history …[and] in democracy was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation .” (p. 337)
Again and again, Ferrante takes the reader back to the first novella in My Brilliant Friend, in which the two girls lose their dolls. Each time she gives it more nuances, more complicated background information, until the initial novella in the first volume of the quartet seems to contain within it, as in Proust, the seeds of all that will follow. Ultimately the plot comes full circle, around to the frame story of Lila’s disappearance, with one concluding moment that brings to a perfect close one of the greatest literary achievements of the new century.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, $18 trade paperback, 9781609452865, September 1, 2015)