The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

The last of Neapolitan Novels and an amazing conclusion to the series.

The relationship (I somehow feel more and more hesitant to call it friendship) between Lenu and Lila continues. As in the previous book Lenu before picking the story where she left off reminds us that she’s writing it from perspective of years passed. Relating the story becomes difficult for her, the dilemma is very similar to the one she faces in her relation with Lila:

I’ve been writing for too long, and I’m tired; it’s more and more difficult to keep the thread of the story taut within the chaos of the years, of events large and small, of moods. So either I tend to pass over my own affairs to recapture Lila and all the complications she brings with her or, worse, I let myself be carried away by the events of my life, only because it’s easier to write them. But I have to avoid this choice. I mustn’t  take the first path, on which, I set myself aside, I would end up finding even fewer traces of Lila – since the very nature of our relationship dictates that I can reach her only by passing through myself.

Lenu still struggles with the aftermath of her marriage and her new relationship, at the same time trying to continue working and publishing (which is not made easier by her ex-mother-in-law). At this point Lila invites herself back to Lenu’s life, she tries to meet with her every time Lenu is in Naples.

The words followed one another without a pause; at one point, assuming an old habit, she took me by the arm. That gesture left me indifferent. She wants to prove that we’re still the same, I said to myself, but it’s time to acknowledge that we’ve used each other up, that arm of hers is like a wooden limb or the phantom remains of the thrilling contact of long ago.

It is obvious that the roles have fundamentally changed since the first two books. Lenu became stronger, she freed herself at least to a certain degree from the neighborhood, became her own person. She feels so confident that she decides to move back to the neighborhood, she feels the distance will protect her. Lila on the other hand seems stuck in the relations ruling the neighborhood. She confines herself to it, limits her life to her work, Solaras and close group of people she knew forever.

That gave me confidence, made me proud, I was finally convinced that the period of my dependence was over.

                Lila didn’t notice at all. She, from the depths of the neighbourhood, from that era that now seemed to me infinitesimal, continued to consider me an appendage of hers.

That does not mean Lenu is now completely independent, there is something in her personality that just craves approval and makes her judge herself in relation to other people. She needs to be loved and appreciated, I know we all do, but her need is either way more powerful or she is just more aware of it and readily admits it. Through the book Lenu constantly oscillates between feeling finally complete and confident and needing constant approval to reassert herself.

How I suffered in situations where approval suddenly vanished: I lost confidence, I felt dragged down to my origins, I felt politically incapable, I felt I was a woman who would have been better off not opening her mouth, and for a while I avoided every occasion of public confrontation.

[…]

As I traveled toward Milan, I discovered that, with Lila set aside, I didn’t know how to give myself substance except by modelling myself on Nino. I was incapable of being a model for myself. Without him I no longer had a nucleus from which to expand outside the neighbourhood and through the world, I was a pile of debris.

When they become forty Lila’s life dramatically changes, Lenu is not able to help and they grow apart again. It seems that now finally Lenu will completely free herself and manage to build her own self, for once not in relation to Lila or Nino.

From childhood I had given her too much importance, and now I felt as if unburdened. Finally it was clear that what I was wasn’t her, and vice versa. Her authority was no longer necessary to me, I had my own. I felt strong, no longer a victim of my origins but capable of dominating them, of giving them a shape, of taking revenge on them for myself, for Lila, for whomever. What before was dragging me down was now the material for climbing higher.

After forty time speeds for Lenu, she becomes aware of how it races past her. On one hand she is mature woman, having it all we can think, three daughters, carrier, interesting life. On the other hand I don’t think even once I thought ‘I wish I could be her’. Lenu’s life even at its best moments is haunted by Lila, by the neighborhood, by death. Also as much a Lenu finally has some stability in her forties and fifties, she quickly realizes her time has passed, she is not in the forefront of change anymore, she feels like she became a fossil. There is also some resentment that all those things her daughters will take for granted had to be fought for by Lenu’s generation.

So far in this review I didn’t mention the wider political picture, but it is there, political change underpins all events in the book. Ferrante manages to write about politics in the way that is relevant to the lives of her characters, they are directly affected by it, their entire world is changing.

Another level of this book is language, I really wish my Italian was good enough to allow me to read the original version, to feel and hear the difference between Italian and the dialect. Lenu strongly believes that the language we use affects the way we think, affects our personality and how we interact, and because both Lenu and Lila speak the dialect and Italian the decision of using one over the other is always a meaningful one, it defines distance. 

It occurred to me that it was now a linguistic question. She resorted to Italian, as if to a barrier; I tried to push her toward dialect, our language of candor. But while her Italian was translated from dialect, my dialect was increasingly translated from Italian, and we both spoke false language.

It is a fantastic book and I think a worthy finale of the series. Looking back at the whole series now I realize how dark it is. How full of introspection and often suffering. It was worth it. 

As always when reviewing a book that I loved I feel like I didn’t do it justice, so best try it for yourself and let me know if you liked it.

What are your favorite friendship stories in novels? Which book character you’d like to be friends with (I doubt Lila will be top of the list ;))?

 Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

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