The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante
Ann Goldstein, Translator

(Europa Editions)
It's a pot-boiler, a soap opera, a plot-driven novel that has the high-falutin' literary world (which considers itself above this sort of nonsense) mesmerized. It's a novel (or in this case, a set of novels) that bridges the difference between high- and middle-brow. It is, at the same time, resolutely familiar and totally new. But how? Nobody seems to really have an answer to that simple question.

As befits a pot-boiler, there is no shortage of plot twists --- in fact, people get murdered so often, the murders barely rate a mention. The crime always seems justified because the victims, like everyone else in Naples, are always guilty. The killers are never caught because the murder is only the outward manifestation of the seething societal malevolence. It just is the way it is. Move along, nothing special here.

Elena's boyfriend/husband is discovered screwing the unattractive maid, the ineluctable logic of the penis obliterating both sense and the last shreds of a relationship. And the disappearance of the child is told almost in retrospect, all of the anxious horror drained from the moment-by-moment nightmare. The reality of a small lapse of attention is too awful to recount. The horror is seen through a set of mirrors; it is never seen face-on.

In a wonderful Paris Review interview, Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of The Story of the Lost Child, laid out her fictional plan:

    I publish to be read. It's the only thing that interests me about publication. So I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader's attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader's attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose. I don't think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn't one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.

That's why The Story of the Lost Child reads like a pot-boiler. It is one. Even while it's not.

The novel tells the story of a life-long relationship between two women, Elena, the narrator, and Lila, friends since they began attending the same Naples school when they were six. Each is vitally important to the other, even when they aren't speaking, which is often. Elena as narrator spends the four novels and 50+ years probing the relationship, always striving to find a more complete picture of Lila, to understand her mystery. Every twenty pages of so, Elena makes a new summary of who Lila is (that figure is a complete guess, but it's often).

The goal of the novel, in other words, is to understand another person. But each pronouncement is superseded by the next. Is there progress toward the definitive encapsulation? Do we seem to be getting closer to the truth? Maybe. I'm not sure I can tell.

That means the novel is about the mystery of other people. Here are two people, as close as they can be, wrapped in an intimate familiarity, but still ultimately unknown to each other. As hard as Elena tries, she can't reduce Lila to a simple statement.

Which doesn't mean she doesn't try. It's the striving that is important, the desire to solve the mystery. That's what occupies Elena. She is on the self-actualization path: to get out of Naples, to establish herself as a writer, to find a relationship, to make herself equal to or better than Lila. That's the deal: the relationship is deeply competitive, an urge that exists alongside love and friendship. Does the competition sometimes get in the way of the loftier urges? Absolutely. Does it destroy them? Not entirely.

In The Story of the Lost Child the attraction is the immediacy of the experience. It's like, say its women readers, having your best girl friend tell you a story. The prose is clear, resolutely unfancy (you can probably find a descriptive paragraph if you try; I don't remember one), with an undercurrent of malice, of violence.

It is a story of Elena's mind in conversation with itself, the constantly running inner voice. She is adding up her wins, acknowledging losses and always self-justifying. To my mind, it sounds very familiar:

    Yet something wasn't right. It was a sensation of indeterminacy, which I felt even when everything appeared explicit and it seemed only one of Lila's old childish diversions: to orchestrate situations in which she let you perceive that under the facts there was something else.

Compare that to the tone, written about 90 years ago, revolutionary at the time, but maybe not so much now, of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse:

    There might be some simpler way, some less laborious way, she sighed. When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better --- her husband; money; his books. But for her own part she would never for a single second regret her decision, evade difficulties, or slur over duties. She was now formidable to behold ....

Both books reflect the consciousness of accomplished women. Both are honest portrayals of disingenuous minds. Both are self-justifying. But Ferrante's narrative voice is considerably less polished, a product of more than the substitution of first-person for third. Mrs. Ramsay's intimacies could be shared with a group of twenty peers at a social gathering, the self seen historically. It admits problems but not defeat. Elena's are spoken as she thinks them and despair is always close at hand.

§   §   §

The Story of the Lost Child, is the fourth, and very final, book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quatrology. Elena Ferrante is a pen name; nobody seems to know her real identity. She was born in Naples, the scene of most of the action, and is about the age of the narrator. Her name and the name of the first person narrator are both Elena, so if you are thinking there is some overlap here, you aren't the first to have that thought.

Besides, the novel has a sense of experienced life. It may be the product of experienced life put through an equally imaginative consciousness, making it unrecognizable in biographical details. Or it may be very close to the lived life of the narrator. After all, Elena --- this time, I mean the Elena in the book --- writes books that are thinly fictionalized versions of her fictional life (yes, I am now confused too). But you're on your own with this. The author Elena has thoroughly disguised herself. Easy life-to-fiction comparisons/explanations are off the table.

Elena begins the novel with an anti-Lila diatribe: Lila has criticized her for damage Elena is doing to her children (by leaving her husband for Nino, a lover who once loved Lila as well). But Elena thinks she is the better mother. The standard is comparative: Elena does not consider if she is doing wrong, only if she is less wrong than Lila. She is very self-absorbed.

The Lost Child of the title is Tina, Lila's daughter. She disappears one Sunday afternoon when Lila, Nino, Tina and Imma, Elena's daughter, are outside. To Elena, the fault was Lila's, who was playing up to Nino rather than watching her own child.

But Lila has a different explanation. Some time earlier, a local newspaper did a feature story on Elena, including pictures. One of the pictures includes Tina and mistakenly identifies her as Elena's daughter. Because Elena's most recent novel describes the mafia crime in her neighborhood, Lila believes her daughter was taken as retribution, one more example of the local violence.

We don't know the truth. The daughter (or her remains) are never found. But characteristically, both Elena and Lila think the other is at fault.

Throughout their long history together, Elena and Lila share an intelligence that sets them off from the other inhabitants of their Naples slum. Lila is the forceful one; Elena the academic. Lila has no boundaries; Elena has a boatload of them. Elena succeeds as a writer, but Lila inadvertently falls into the role of a businesswoman.

Elena knows that much of her success comes from Lila, from her example, even from her early attempts at writing. Although their lives diverge significantly, Elena feels that life with Lila is more interesting, more vivid than life without her. And then, when visiting Nino, the father of her daughter and now an elected member of Parliament, Elena has another epiphany about Lila, seeing Lila though Nino's eyes:

    [Lila] possessed intelligence and didn't put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches of the world are merely a sign of vulgarity. That was the fact that must have beguiled Nino: the gratuitousness of Lila's intelligence.

Unlike Nino, whose life was a game board that took advantage of every angle to get ahead, and unlike Elena, who worked very hard to impress, Lila relied only on her protean energy, her natural force. Because Lila wasn't an academic, Elena says she wasted her intelligence. That's not fair: Lila used her cunning constantly, though not in the same way as Elena.

At the end of her life, Elena looks back over her writings, realizing how dated they are, how they repeated the themes of the moment without adding much insight. For much of her life, those writings made her feel superior to Lila. However, when Elena sees the mediocrity of her work, Lila's life looks much more significant to her, the gratuitousness of Lila's intelligence seems an entirely viable, even preferable, alternative to her own striving.

Elena ends up hoping that Lila's writings, which she expects to be a formless description of Naples' past, will be her own salvation. She will clean them up. She will publish them. Together, she and Lila will produce something transcendantly meaningful. But Elena will be the brains, while Lila provides the energy, the insight, an exquisite editorship. A perfect ending for a disappointing life. It is, of course, one more fantasy.

--- Richard Daverman
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