The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels #4)
August 22, 2016 9:43 AM - by Elena Ferrante - Subscribe

This fourth and final installment in the series confirms Elena Ferrante, as “one of the great novelists of our time” (NYT Book Review). Here is the dazzling saga of two women, the brilliant, bookish Elena and the fiery, uncontainable Lila. Both are now adults; life’s great discoveries have been made, its vagaries and losses have been suffered. Through it all, the women’s friendship has remained the gravitational center of their lives. Both women once fought to escape the neighborhood in which they grew up - a prison of conformity, violence, and inviolable taboos. [SPOILERS below.]

In this final book, Elena has returned to Naples. Lila, on the other hand, never succeeded in freeing herself from the city of her birth. She has become a successful entrepreneur, but her success draws her into closer proximity with the nepotism, chauvinism, and criminal violence that infect her neighborhood. Proximity to the world she has always rejected only brings her role as its unacknowledged leader into relief. For Lila is unstoppable, unmanageable, unforgettable! Against the backdrop of a Naples that is as seductive as it is perilous and a world undergoing epochal change, the story of a lifelong friendship is told with unmatched honesty and brilliance.

The four volumes in this series constitute a long remarkable story that readers will return to again and again, and every return will bring with it new revelations.

Original title: Storia della bambina perduta. (So, it's clear from the outset it's a girl that's lost.) Chapter headings: Maturity - Story of the Lost Child; Old Age - Story of Bad Blood; Epilogue - Restitution.
posted by progosk (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Finally finished this! I wrote my previous comment upon reaching the italicized sentence at the end of chapter 90: "I had written a novel." I was so struck by this because it brilliantly condensed one of the main themes of the books, the relationship between her writing and the people, places, and stories it drew on. It's a perennial problem for writers: they can't help but write about what they know, and the people whose stories they draw on recognize themselves and complain, often feeling betrayed, and the writer says helplessly "But it's a novel! I made it all up! It's not about you... although, yes, I may have used part of your life as part of the story of that character, but... but... it's fiction!" And of course the problem is far worse for people who write about powder-kegs like Naples and the camorra.

In retrospect, I almost feel as if that was the high point of the novel. The tension that is suddenly ratcheted up in that chapter slowly dissipates over the next few, as nothing really comes of it. And then comes the lost-child part. My problem there was that Tina was never real to me; she seemed more of an idealized counterweight to Elena's children than an actual child, so when she disappeared it wasn't the gut-punch it could have been (I'm tempted to compare it to another novel with a similar but more powerful development, but I won't because it would spoil that novel). Tina's disappearance seems more a plot device to drive Lila completely around the bend than a believable happening grounded in locale and character, and after three and a half books of compelling developments it felt like a letdown, if only a minor one.

But I think maybe the book, and the series, should have ended at that point, with the disappearance. Because my wife and I both felt that the subsequent section, "Old Age," was a brisk gallop through a bunch of events that just seemed like one damn thing after another: the kids go off to America, Pasquale is arrested, she writes another book... The one part I thought was really successful was the saga of Nino getting elected, becoming a self-satisfied politician, getting caught up in a scandal and thrown out, and then (this was the perfect resolution) switching to a more conservative party and getting reelected. And then the last bit with the return of the childhood dolls—what's to be made of that? Obviously it's a neat bit of tying-up, bringing back the beginning to close the series, but neither of us really believed it.

I'm not committed to any of those reservations; obviously I've only read the series once and may very well feel differently on rereading. But I'm very curious as to what others have to say about all this!
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

And then the last bit with the return of the childhood dolls—what's to be made of that?

[Spoilers] I had a different response to the ending of the dolls, and was struck by the thought that Oh my God, Lila knew about those dolls and kept them for years, throughout all of her flights, and lied about them all that time. Lila is not a woman possessed by stuff--yes, she enjoys showing off her apartment and its luxuries, but she travels light across the years. She found the dolls. She kept them. She actively refused to restore to her friend a meaningful possession. How old was she when she made that decision? Six? Sixteen? Lenu loved that doll; Lila's deception ensured that the loss endured as a wound. Returning it is an admission--I wanted to hurt you--and an apology, and an act of spite: Here is your doll, here is my doll, wrapped carelessly in this transient trash, and I am now gone into darkness and silence, and may you wonder and worry and suffer. I read it as an aggressive act intended to re-open old memories, re-establish a kind of enmeshment, and to punish Lenu. You thought you knew me? You thought you could define me? Ha. You understood nothing. It is, for me, one last reminder that the story is not Lina's lived experience. That for all of the work of creating the narrative, of polishing it and promoting it, the dolls' return is a cruel and feminine way of asserting that Lenu is wrong; wrong about everything.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:20 PM on September 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

That's an excellent analysis of one possible scenario! My wife also thought Lila probably sent the dolls, but (and this may be my limitation as a reader) I can't really take seriously possibilities not provided by the text but only guessed at in an attempt to make sense of it. Sure, they could have been sent by Lila, but they could have been sent by anyone who found them; there are too many possibilities, and as I say it just seemed like a hasty way to wrap things up neatly. None of the last part had the rich depth that enabled me to accept everything that happened earlier as if it were part of life itself.

[Surely we don't have to worry about spoilers in a thread about this book? I'm not a Fanfare regular, but I assumed if you're in a post about a particular episode of a series it's because you've already seen/read it. If not, I apologize for all the spoilers in my comment above!]
posted by languagehat at 5:34 PM on September 5, 2016

I think it is Lila who sent them: first, because of Pasquale's line, a page of two earlier: "You'll see that when Lila decides to, she'll show up." Then Lenu's words, ""Will she return?...I'm waiting." And then immediately before the package, she is playing with the dog, "leafing through the papers." Newspapers have been to focal point of so much trouble in these novels! Nino! The stories about the trouble at the meat plant! The reviews of Lenu's novels! And then, then, "I found on top of my mailbox a package roughly wrapped in newspaper...Nothing indicated that it had been left for me or for any other tenant," suggesting that it was hand-delivered and didn't go through the postal system. This package is targeted at the woman who paid attention to newspapers. "There was no note with it and it didn't even have my last name written in pen somewhere." Who else would have had access to these objects? Would have known their story? Would have known exactly the destination, and how to present the gift most woundingly--carelessly, without the dignity of an addressee, in disposable material covered with words? (As opposed to the gift of new school books, "tied up in wrapping paper.") Motive, method, opportunity.

To your point about the brisk gallop through "Old Age"--yes, agreed, lots of years and events compressed into a sketched-in outline, especially compared to the space she gives the final event of restoration. As though life is one thing, and these mythic objects another. I found it a parallel to the end of the first book, the sudden zooming-in on an object that redefines that narrative that's gone before. (I caught my breath at the wedding. My husband said, "What? What is it?" "Oh my God, A MAN IS WEARING SHOES," I replied, which sounded admittedly insane--but it immediately made me question whether I had understood the ebb and flow between characters, and I realized how much is going on, unsaid, in the background. Lila has been busy offstage in a similar manner while Lenu is watching her girls grow up, traveling, etc. The dolls, like the school books, are a poisoned gift, moldy, cheap, and ugly, intended to suggest both of the interpretations that occur to Lenu, of her own manipulation and of Lina's freedom: "[N]ow that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore." The always-ambiguity of Lina's intentions has now become clear, and the two-part invention is at an end, figuratively and literally.

* I added "spoiler" up there out of an abundance of caution. I agree that reading the book is a prerequisite for discussion, and I am enjoying these Ferrante threads immensely.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:13 PM on September 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Eesh, forgive typos above. Comment composed while getting the kids to bed, sorry.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:21 PM on September 5, 2016

Here's another reader disappointed by the Restitution epilogue - so it's not an uncommon reaction to the dénouement.

Like MonkeyToes, I think, I wound up entangled.
posted by progosk at 5:26 AM on September 6, 2016

Who else would have had access to these objects? Would have known their story? Would have known exactly the destination, and how to present the gift most woundingly--carelessly, without the dignity of an addressee, in disposable material covered with words?

Anyone who was in the house that day when the girls stormed in demanding them, and anyone any of those people may have told the story to. As for presenting them most woundingly—that's only a consideration if it's Lila; for anybody else, it would have just been "Hey, if you're in town could you drop this off at such-and-such address, thanks." I agree that Ferrante wants us to think it's Lila, and of course if I had to put money on it (and if there were some way to know) that's how I'd bet, but I'm just not artistically convinced. It seems like a cop-out. Which leads nicely into:

> Here's another reader disappointed by the Restitution epilogue

Many thanks for that! This is exactly how I felt: "to begin and end with the dolls seems too neat, too transparent an example of a Literary Device." In exchange: Ann Goldstein on Translating Elena Ferrante.
posted by languagehat at 10:46 AM on September 6, 2016

And thanks to both of you for being here—it's great to have people to talk about this stuff with after obsessing about it for many weeks!
posted by languagehat at 10:47 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Many thanks for that!

Their whole round-robin read&review makes for an interesting collection of varied perspectives on the series.

It's great to have people to talk about this stuff with after obsessing about it

It's odd, after a summer's Ferrante full-immersion, to find myself wary of waxing on about the books to every-/anyone here in Italy. Seems to me they're actually less-sung here than abroad (it's fascinating to watch the craze take shape elsewhere; the German translations just came out a couple of weeks ago), and it's definitely more a woman's read (those covers, ha!); plus, being closer to home, they tend to be taken more literally than literarily. So it's like this rich secret to carry around, with enthusing reserved to the initiate - and even then: unless you're Neapolitan, you can't really claim to have got them fully, figuriamoci.
posted by progosk at 1:35 PM on September 6, 2016

(Oh and: thanks for that excellent Ann Goldstein conversation - a lot in there about smarginatura (yay!) - a concept that there's actually a precursor for in Troubled Love, incidentally.)
posted by progosk at 2:22 PM on September 6, 2016

Look who else is into the series: MeFi's own Jason Kottke, and Hilary Clinton.
posted by progosk at 3:33 PM on September 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

For those who might be hankering for more great writing about Naples and its inhabitants, two books about Naples in 1944 (the year Elena and Lila are born, and thus the world their parents lived in): John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis’s Naples '44. The first is by an American and is not so much a novel as a collection of short stories alternating with brief reminiscences of the author’s experiences; it's uneven, but at its best (as in a loving account of a gay bar, astonishing for the period) it's powerful and convincing. The second is by a British intelligence officer who became one of the great travel writers of the 20th century, and it just gets more and more effective as it goes on. Together they make a one-two punch that helped me understand not just Naples but America's role in WWII (and, frankly, war in general) more than ever before. Highly recommended.
posted by languagehat at 11:15 AM on October 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

A. Bady, author of the best rebuttal of the recent "Ferrante exposé", wrote a profound appreciation of the novels, a year ago: "Elena Ferrante: Master of the Epic Anti-Epic - Dante in the key of Virginia Woolf".
posted by progosk at 3:20 AM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

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