My rating: 4 stars
The first three books in The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (about which there are spoilers ahead) – cast light on Elena and Lila’s convoluted and fascinating friendship. The last instalment in the series, História da Menina Perdida (The Story of the Lost Child in the English translation), is no exception in that respect. However, it also heavily focuses on the complex relationship between mothers and daughters, all while painting a clear picture of the Neapolitan society of the time.
In this forth instalment, the story resumes the moment after Elena left her husband, Pietro Airota, and went with Nino Sarratore to Montpellier, where he had to attend a congress. While there, she phoned Pietro, whom informed her that the two girls didn’t want her to be their mother anymore. That hurt Elena. Nevertheless, when she returned to Florence, her daughters welcomed her with enthusiasm. Their reaction wasn’t as cheerful when, after a while, she told them that she needed to go to Naples.
Elena’s life was in turmoil. Her little book was going to be published in France, she wanted to separate from her husband, and also needed to decide on a place to live with her daughters. The last thing that she wanted was to meet up with Lila again. While she was in Naples, though, Lila insisted on talking with her and Nino. They met at a café and then went to the Solara’s shoe store, where awaiting Elena were the friends from her old neighbourhood. Elena came to believe that Lila didn’t exert as much power over her as she used to when they were younger, although she feared that Nino could still be interested in her.
Despite being in Naples for a while, Elena didn’t tell her family about her decision to leave Pietro. It was him who phoned her mother, whom took his side and voiced her disappointment in no uncertain terms. Elena was resolute, though. She left Pietro and moved with her daughters to Naples. Only then did Lila make sure that she knew that Nino had never left his wife.
Lila and Elena’s friendship continued to be as complex as ever. Lila wanted to spend more time with Elena, but initially Elena tried to avoid her. Although Elena recognised that Lila had tried to help her in her own strange way throughout her life, she occasionally thought about her with hostility. Their friendship had always been convoluted, which makes the story more interesting. Elena treasured, admired, envied and resented Lila at different occasions. The same seems to be true for Lila. They became close again at first thanks to their children. But their lives were bound to be linked from the very beginning, which is reflected in the end of the novel.
Motherhood is another topic explored throughout the book. Elena Ferrante addresses how there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to raise children. Women are expected to always be present. Elena’s relationship with her mother is also engagingly portrayed. Its complexities are believable and heartfelt. Elena’s relationship with her oldest daughters could have been further explored, though. Sometimes the narration moves forward too fast, while at other occasions too much time is spent describing uninteresting issues.
Social and political considerations complement the action in The Story of the Lost Child. There are various references to the dealing of drugs in Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood, tension in politics, corruption and violence. They help paint a vivid portrayal of Naples. Elena also struggled to come to terms with her own political views – she liked using subversive language, but at the same time the aggressiveness of the revolutionary protests scared her. Her being originally from a poor family is never forgotten by other characters. The Airotas believed that, in spite of her intelligence, it had been a privilege for Elena to join their family. Although they saw themselves as very progressive, they felt superior to others because of their lineage.
All of the books in The Neapolitan Novels are for the most part highly engrossing. The conversational writing style is one of the main reasons why the everyday lives of the characters are so engaging. It feels like a real woman is telling us the story of her life. This tale of an unforgettable friendship comes to an end via a circular structure – the last book ends where the first begins.