With the release of the fourth and final Neapolitan novel, readers who’ve been following Lena and Lila for hundreds of pages are finally offered a sense of closure.
The novels deal with many themes, chief among them female friendship, the relationship between our places of origin and the people we become, and the tenuous bonds that give life its periods of equilibrium. Increasingly, however, another theme emerges. It begins as a quiet rumble towards the end of My Brilliant Friend, builds throughout The Story of A New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, then fills The Story of The Lost Child with an inescapable roar. Nothing is fixed. There is no permanence or closure. Even our holy sites and places of learning are built atop the garbage, feces, and blood of those who were, in their own time, convinced they’d left indelible marks upon the earth.
What the narrator initially thinks is her friend’s effort to create a magnum opus, something that would eclipse the work of her own life, may indeed have been only a study in how to disappear; how to be forgotten. She sits alone, in her old age, questioning everything that’s happened in her life and everything she thinks she’s known despite having always held the conviction that her work was important. In a series full of moments that feel like punches to the gut, this one may be the most difficult: readers do not, just as the narrator does not, really know what happens to Lila. Then, another moment follows, this one ambiguous but laden with meaning. We, like Elena, must clarify the ambiguity and ascribe our own meaning. At the same time, Ferrante just spent page after page reminding us that there may be none. Any conclusion we reach might become, in turn, another forgotten monument–but then again, Lila’s possible final action might refute the very points she so often drove forcefully into her friend’s mind.
In these novels, Ferrante nearly wrote an instruction manual for struggling women–here the protagonist deals with a difficult mother, here she deals with the frustrations of domesticity, here she overcomes humiliation at the hands of a lover, here she balances her children and her career, and so forth. Throughout, the tension in the life-defining friendship and the push and pull between her squalid, violent childhood home and the rest of the world threaten to undermine all that. The narrator changes her mind about herself, and her friend, so often that no conclusion feels solid. The importance of language and communication arise throughout all four books, with Ferrante noting when a character speaks in dialect, when someone uses formal Italian, when the binary language of computers grows powerful, or when a character loses touch with a first language and can best speak in foreign words acquired later in life. On the other hand, Lila often denigrates the importance of speaking and writing, and many of the most important things in the book are expressed not in words but action (or, more subtly still, ideas intuited from facial expressions and thoughts divined from hesitations in speech and gaps between conversations). Everything, once established, is undermined.
This book is a thriller, with organized crime, murder, and jailhouse visits filling its pages. This book is a domestic drama, with family struggles continuously at the fore. This book is a political procedural, with party divisions and social upheaval defining its backdrop. It’s a bildungsroman, it’s a body horror document, it’s a study of place as character, it’s all these things, and it’s none of them. Whether one woman dies famous, whether the other truly disappears; whether one woman finds clarity, whether the other finds her lost child; the meaning of two old dolls–whether these things are important shifts and shakes like the earthquake-prone ground of Naples.
The Lilas of the world will reach the quartet’s end and conclude that Ferrante’s object was to elaborately paint these characters and their struggles into the landscape of futility in which we all exist. The Lenas of the world, on the other hand, will yet tease out a meaning. If you’ve breathlessly paged through four novels searching for something conclusive, like I did, you probably will, too.
The Story of the Lost Child: Neapolitan Novels, Book Four by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions | 9781609452865 | September 1, 2015)