Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels all contain small but thrilling acts of feminist revolt. Like the writer Mary Gaitskill, who has also written extensively about female friendship, Ferrante portrays women’s lives and relationships as unsentimental and fierce. The overarching narrative is of childhood friends, Lila and Elena, who both support and threaten each other; the story spans grade school to the present and covers love affairs, unhappy marriages, motherhood and career.
In “The Story of the Last Child,” the fourth and final volume of this epic series, the friends reunite in Naples, confronting the violence of their childhood by seeking out the Solaras brothers, local agents of the Camorra, Italy’s version of the mafia. Although their story has both high-end and domestic intrigue, Elena and Lila’s day-to-day focus is motherhood.
Elena, the book’s narrator, is aware of her weakness as a parent, but she feels she is more of a mother than Lila. The writing about motherhood in these books is never sugar-coated; Ferrante’s depiction of a woman’s inner life is raw, churning and true. In one harrowing scene Elena fills her suitcase with elegant lingerie and leaves to be with her lover, while her children’s cries pursue her into the street. Elena, while away with her lover, thinks about her “children’s bodies rejoining hers” and becomes intensely nauseated with longing for them.
Eventually she gets used to the upheaval that is single motherhood, feeling “happy and unhappy at the same time.” She also admits that “a little fame and love … could obscure her daughters.” After her marriage ends, she leaves her children with their grandparents for two years. Elena wants motherhood equally as much as she wants a literary life. It’s Pietro, Elena’s ex-husband, who states their failure most succinctly: “I’m saying that there is a need for continuity of affection and that neither you nor I have been able to make sure that Dede and Elsa feel that.”
Still, Elena’s daughters, Dede and Elsa, benefit from their mother’s and Lila’s unorthodox feminist ideas. In one scene, Dede tells her mother that Lila has told the girls that the idea of taking men’s surnames is stupid. “If someone talks about Aunt Lila’s stomach he doesn’t say this is Stefano Caracci’s stomach, but says this is Lila Cerullo’s stomach. The same goes for you: your stomach is Elena Greco’s stomach, not Pietro Airota’s.” Dede goes on to say that babies should be named after their mothers, not their fathers. Elena is surprised and grateful. Lila has, with depth and intelligence, made her daughters’ experience of divorce seem “not only acceptable but also interesting.”
At first in her new, unmarried life Elena feels pleasure “spreading far beyond my boundaries.” Soon though she is haunted by fear of her lover’s infidelity. He flirts with women at academic conferences and dinner parties. Ferrante knows well how infidelity can make a woman feel like she’s losing her mind. Elena can’t affix her lover, a man she’s known since childhood, with a stable identity. It’s ironic that it is as Elena travels around Europe discussing her feminist text on “men creating women” that she becomes a mistress.
Best friend Lila, as in all the Neapolitan novels, remains enigmatic, belligerent and expansive. She disparages writing, calling it lines of black segments that look like insect feces, and fame is “a ribbon tied around a sack filled with blood, flesh, words .... and petty thoughts.”
Elena’s fascination and envy for Lila propels the story. Elena admires Lila. “I was made as I was made but Lila was elegant by nature.” She is often ambivalent and jealous, but Lila, with her feral character, is closer to essential truths. During the 1980 earthquake, Lila has a spiritual epiphany. “Tonight I finally understood it: there is always a solvent that acts slowly with a gentle heat, and undoes everything.”
“The Story of the Lost Child” gets meta in its last section. Elena, worried that Lila herself may be writing a novel, composes a story called “The Friendship” based on her relationship with Lila that sounds much like the first novel in the Neapolitan series, “My Brilliant Friend.” Elena the fictional character mixes with Elena the author as she admits that she needs Lila but she also longs to control her. “I love Lila. I want her to last. But I wanted it to be me who made her last.”
After Elena publishes “The Friendship,” Lila cuts off contact. She has, after all, broken her promise to never write about her friend.
Elena has to admit that the emotional truth that made the book successful was also what most hurt Lila. But as a work of art she feels “The Friendship” is superior to her previous books, which she now sees as lacking “because I hadn’t been able to imitate the disjointed, unattainable, illogical shapeless beauty of things.”
The Neapolitan quartet succeeds in capturing life as lived, the striving female mind, the power of unknowing, the idea that agency within one’s fate, not the fate itself, is what truly matters. You can read “The Story of the Lost Child” as a stand-alone book, but I entreat you to start at the beginning of this masterwork. Finishing the last volume, I felt like I’d entered, for a time, another existence. Like Anna Karenina, Lila and Elena are volatile, full of desire and rage. They too break domestic conventions, but it thrills me that instead of killing them off, Ferrante allows them, in all their chaos and pain, to thrive.
The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions: 480 pp., $18 paper
Steinke is the author, most recently, of “Sister Golden Hair.”