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The Story of the Lost Child: Neopolitan Novels, Book Four
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
To read Elena Ferrante feels like joining a secret sorority. Surely there are men who read her work too--as they should--but her tetralogoy's clear-eyed lack of sentimentality, its sharp intellect, and its emotional acuity all stand out as intensely aware of what it is to be a woman. The center of the books, which this volume concludes, revolve around a female friendship, but they also delve deeply into what it means to be a woman and build a career, what it means to be a mother, what it is to be in the female body. At the same time Ferrante is never didactic or overly broad; every detail, from girlhood mythologies and school studies to the realities of marriage and parenthood, is described with realistic particularity. The books are also incredible depictions of class tension, perhaps unsurprisingly for books whose events take place during the tumultuous period of the Red Brigades, when the youth of Italy were divided between a resurgent fascism and the corruption of organized crime and a violently extremist communist movement. Lenu, the narrator, observes the politics of the age from a certain distance, always more interested in passing as informed than in the topics themselves. Her real fixations are on her old friend Lina's own progress through life, and the upward trajectory of another neighborhood kid made good, her school friend and adolescent crush Nino. Lenu's work as a writer both rises out of these fixations and attempts to be an antidote to them, a way of separating herself from her childhood friend and her mother and her neighborhood, of transforming herself. Like all transformations, it has an undercurrent of anxiety, what might be termed imposter syndrome in a different context. While moving away from her old impoverished beginnings, Lenu simultaneously needs them to acknowledge her transformation.
In this final installment of the series, Lenu and Lina's friendship is able to reblossom largely because the distance between them becomes manageable, not just in proximity but in economic terms as well. By the time Lenu returns to her birthplace of Naples, Lila and her partner have made a success of their computer company and no longer live in squalor. Lenu and her daughters move into an apartment above Lila's, and the next years are spent in relative harmony as the two households follow each other's rhythms, even going to pre-natal appointments together when they are both pregnant at the same time. Yet nothing is ever calm and stable in their relationship, and under the surface various tensions simmer. Lenu resents Lina for her dismissive judgment of Lenu's novels, while simultaneously fearing that she is only ever able to write by harnessing Lila's perceptions of the world. Their relationship is far more dynamic than any possible between lovers or family; even the intense attraction of Lenu for her childhood crush Nino, her reason for leaving her husband and returning to Naples, pales in comparison to the pull of Lina. Yet the long-running affair with Nino highlights Ferrante's strengths, even as it fades next to the inexorable connection between the two women. Nino gives up nothing for Lenu, not his marriage or his many other affairs, while Lenu abandons her new life and returns to the very place she has been trying to escape for his sake; in return, she receives the intoxicating pleasure of being with him and the excruciating pain of being left by him in increasingly uneven measure. A familiar story, but one which is never judged dismissively. The romantic lives of Ferrante's female characters are allowed to merely exist in a way that has largely been the domain of men in literature, without any undue punishment or censure. Or at least it is a world where conventional and unconventional choices are punished equally, where to marry for convenience and money never pays off but nor does acting unconventionally, to retain one's independence or out of passion. In short, the books are like life, the highest possible compliment. The series concludes in as fine a fashion as it began, and in the same place, too, with Lenu puzzling over her mysterious, enchanting friend just as the reader puzzles over these equally enthralling books. They are vivid, immediate classics.
Out of 10: 10.0