The women in Elena Ferrante’s ongoing chronicle of a turbulent friendship are many things, but thankfully, they’re rarely just nice girls. She deals in the complications of female relationships, and moments of ugly human interaction—the sudden betrayals, the tiny cruelties, the shameful secret thoughts—are her specialty. Such brutal honesty has earned Ferrante a loyal following since the first volume of her so-called Neapolitan novels was published Stateside in 2012. Her universe is so immersive that even the question of her true identity—she refuses to be photographed or reveal her given name—fails to pull focus. Now, with The Story of the Lost Child, her engrossing, semi-autobiographical saga signs off with a bittersweet farewell.
The fourth and final installment resumes without preamble. Brainy Elena, now an esteemed writer, has decided to put her desire for intellectual and sexual fulfillment ahead of the needs of her husband and children, while her old friend Lila has become a successful self-taught computer expert and business owner. The two are reunited in the Naples of their childhood, their lives independent yet intertwined: Elena relies on Lila’s brilliance for inspiration but fears her friend’s talent eclipses her own; she resents Lila’s often malicious calculations—“She pretends to be a kind and affectionate person,” Elena fumes, “but then she gives you a slight nudge, she moves you a tiny bit, and she ruins you”—but can’t stay away from her.
In her inimitable style (expertly rendered, as always, by translator Ann Goldstein), Ferrante examines feminine identity within and without the context of marriage, motherhood, and vocation. Snippets of plot, theme, and character resurface from her earlier works: Romances dissolve, fathers go AWOL, fraught family dynamics are presented without excuses or justification. Though the mystery of Lila’s eventual disappearance is introduced in the first novel as the driving motivation for Elena’s narrative, the series’ central intrigue doesn’t come full circle until the closing pages here, when the story ends abruptly and unpredictably—as true ones often do, of course. Like the tough mothers in her books who refuse to coddle their babies, Ferrante might not give us the neatly wrapped finale we crave, but the one she delivers manages to satisfy, even while leaving us wanting more: more details, more closure, more of this fascinating, beguiling Story. A–
OPENING LINES “From October 1976 until 1979, when I returned to Naples to live, I avoided resuming a steady relationship with Lila. But it wasn’t easy.”