SEPTEMBER 2, 2015
THE FOURTH AND FINAL NOVEL in Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan quartet will no doubt be greeted with mixed emotions by its fans: delight with nearly 500 new pages of engrossing drama and sorrow to say farewell to the childhood friends whose lives we have been following for four years. Italians will have some consolation; they can anticipate a 2016 TV series that will reincarnate Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, the “brilliant friends,” for another season and, perhaps, for a new, younger audience.
Elena Ferrante is that rare species, a unicorn among authors, who writes under a pen name and has withheld her real identity for 23 years. Her English-language publisher, Europa Editions, plays up that mystery by designing book covers that show headless women in elegant apparel or characters whose faces turn away. Ferrante’s refusal to market herself has been admired, not least by Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano, who nominated her for this year’s La Strega literary prize because, as he put it, “your presence may help this award once again be something vital and genuine, not just an exchange of votes and favors.” She didn’t win.
Ferrante’s tetralogy begins with My Brilliant Friend (2012), a novel that depicts two girls who come of age in post-World War II Naples, a city about which journalist Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi wrote, “If Naples had Argus’s hundred eyes, her poverty would make her cry out of every one of them.” That poverty — and its attendant corruption and resignation — is remembered by narrator Elena Greco as full of unexplained fears and risks. You could die of tetanus, gas, bombs, but “you could also die from things that seemed normal,” like being hit by stones or getting thrown out of a window by your father, as her friend Lila is (Lila, though injured, does not die). If Lila is a creature forced to adapt to the laws of this jungle, Elena, at age 12, plans her escape. High school introduces her to the grand plazas and monuments of her city, as far from her derelict neighborhood (lo stradone) as a distant land. In a memorable passage, Elena’s eyes open on a new world, a world she longs to capture with the power of words:
I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together — only together — we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it.
As this final novel confirms, the power of words — and published authorship — is Elena’s alone.
Lila finds success as a computer expert. Her favorite key, she tells Elena, is Delete, and that is what she does at age 66 — she vanishes. A phone call from Lila’s son triggers Book One; Rino, a 40-year-old wastrel and petty thief who lives with his mother, reports that she has been missing for two weeks. Strangely, he also finds that she has cut herself out of group photographs in the family album. He begs to come stay with Elena, who firmly tells him “no,” but her memories of their girlhood cause Elena to fire up her PC and record “all the details of our story.” Their story begins when the girls are six and lose their dolls in the cellar of the neighborhood ogre, Don Achille, and it ends with dolls, repeating a theme the author favors: losing either daughters or the dolls that represent them.
Ferrante’s twin portrait of Lila and Lenù (Elena’s nickname) is a story of sisterhood and survival. A pact is sealed between the two friends — one whom the narrator describes as good, the other as wicked; one who leaves Naples, one who stays — but it is not the co-authorship Lenù and Lila dreamt of when they read Little Women to each other. In fact, as The Story of the Lost Child opens, any accord between the two has been shattered by Lenù’s decision to leave her professor husband, Pietro, for her childhood crush, Nino. Lila, who broke up her own marriage for Nino, thinks she is insane — as do Lenù’s in-laws and parents. This reversal is the first of many; the “good wife” Lenù eventually becomes a single mother, moves back to Naples, and then to her old neighborhood — after having fought so hard to escape it.
Each previous volume has encompassed a period in the girls’ coming of age: infancy and adolescence (My Brilliant Friend), youth (The Story of a New Name), and what the novelist calls “middle time” (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). The Story of the Lost Child describes maturity, specifically Lenù’s rejection of her role as Lila’s “shadow” and Nino’s “slave.” When she returns to Naples in 1979 to begin life as a single parent, she is Lila’s equal, a role Lila accepts reluctantly. Now a wealthy employer in the neighborhood, Lila will offer Lenù protection, much as Lenù rescued her when she was sick and suffering in Book Three.
For Lila, part of protecting her friend is reporting Nino’s lies, even as Lenù continues to live with him and has his child. Despite having written a book about “women as male inventions” and lecturing on feminism to women’s groups, Lenù lets Nino use her as an editor and an agent, boosting his publishing prospects. He uses women, she tells herself, because he believes they are smarter than men, but Lenù fails to see the irony. Inevitably, Nino goes too far, and Lenù moves her family to an apartment above Lila: “My floor was her ceiling.”
Now living one staircase away, Lenù and Lila’s rivalry and co-dependency is re-ignited. Each gives birth to a daughter, named for her grandmother, and they compare methods of baby care. “We shared with each other everything good and useful for healthy growth, engaging in a sort of virtuous contest to see who could find the best nutrition, the softest diaper, the most effective cream to prevent rashes.” A mutual need for family draws them together as heads of an extended brood.
One day, the two friends are together when the floorboards begin to quiver and tables slide. Recreating the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Naples in 1980 gives Ferrante a chance to demonstrate what happens when physical reality becomes unglued. In the past, Lila has suffered panic attacks when it seems that the margins of her world are “dissolving” (Ann Goldstein’s translation of la smarginatura). One episode occurs during fireworks when they’re teens, another when Lila is suffering from overwork and abuse at a meat-processing plant. Now, as the city erupts around them, a terrified Lila is comforted by Lenù:
The tunnel that led to the Marina had collapsed, burying half the fleeing neighborhood. Fantasies fed on one another, and Lila, I saw, believed everything, she trembled as she clung to my arm. The city is dangerous, she whispered, we have to go, the houses are cracking, everything is falling on us, the sewers are spurting into the air, look how the rats are escaping.
Under emotional assault, the narrator discovers that the world’s solidity is an illusion, the self on which she thought she could rely as wobbly as a drunk’s legs. No one writing today describes the threat of annihilation as convincingly as Ferrante. This instability is how Olga explains her crisis in The Days of Abandonment:
“What happened to you that night?”
“I had an excessive reaction that pierced the surface of things.”
“And where did you end up?”
Yet Olga takes her rage and grief at being abandoned and creates a more resilient self — as does Elena Greco. The female narrator Ferrante’s readers have come to trust tells her story from the eye of the storm, not above it. She is often both a mother and a breadwinner who finds ways to develop “toughness” despite a lack of models and learns how to avoid the love trap.
Story is about female lineage and the one thing that can disrupt it: male violence. The number of Lila and Lenù’s childhood friends who die of unnatural causes — murder, overdose, suicide, heart attacks — testifies to Elena’s early knowledge of life’s tenuousness. If the first three novels show Lila and Lenù following paths their teachers might have predicted, this final volume upends everything and leaves us secure in the knowledge that they are better together than apart. Lenù’s mother, who at one point swears to her daughter, “I gave birth to you and I’ll kill you,” softens when she is diagnosed with cancer and Lenù becomes her caregiver. With nothing now to fear, mother accepts daughter’s love, confessing that her oldest child is her “true” child, the only one she knows can take care of her.
Maternal bonding is a theme in all Ferrante’s novels — for better or for worse. In The Days of Abandonment, Olga alternately curses her children for giving her “the stink of motherhood” and needs them to help her stay on course. Leda, after a run-in with a Neapolitan family in The Lost Daughter, is rescued by a phone call from her daughters. In Story, Lenù’s mother is given the gift of prophecy worthy of an Aristotelian tragedy: she predicts that, on the day Lila makes up her mind to, “she’ll crush both of the Solaras.” Marcello and Michele Solara inherited their mother’s loan sharking business and built it into an empire of drug dealing and other crimes. Their accounts are in “red notebooks” Lila has copied and plans to submit as evidence to destroy the brothers. She sends the evidence to the newspaper L’Espresso, where it appears under Lenù’s byline, unbeknownst to her. Blowback from the Solaras is swift and furious, ending with the tragedy of “the lost child.” Lila never recovers her power as a force for reform and prosperity among her neighbors; in fact, they shun her. Her partner Enzo leaves; their computer business is sold. Finally, she disappears.
Ferrante, the Classics scholar, has written a Greek tragedy with Lila as its heroine. If envy is Lenù’s flaw, giving her periodic paroxysms of self-doubt, pride is Lila’s, and her hubris leads her to challenge Michele Solara for control of the neighborhood. For Lila, the war is personal: both her brother and her son have become addicted to heroin. Lila loses what she loves most, but the novel does not end with her defeat.
Book Three ends with a break-up of the sisterhood; this final volume restores it, reminding us that Lila and Lenù are “one in two, two in one.” Their relational dynamics describe a seesaw of identification and autonomy, attraction and repulsion, but, in the end, their need for each other survives any number of husbands, lovers, sadistic employers, deaths of family and friends, and even earthquakes. What they cannot change is the unpredictable violence of Naples’s “black hole.”