Guys, we’ve all finished reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and we’re dying to talk about them (again). See what we thought of the final book, The Story of the Lost Child. There are NO spoilers. Just the sound of our swoons.
It was an auspicious day when The Story of the Lost Child proofs arrived in the Turnaround warehouse. We all read the first three books like hungry soldiers, and the office was in a perpetual state of Ferrante-talk. The gap between Those Who Leave and Lost Child was painful. What is going to happen next? What will Lenu do now? Will Lila get it together? Given Ferrante’s talent for surprise endings, we’d been left dangling from a Neapolitan cliff, desperate to get some closure. So when the proofs arrived, it’s fair to say we were beside ourselves.
Turns out there were a lot of reviewers and booksellers who felt the same way. Everyone was desperate for a proof. So we did the right thing and delegated ourselves one to share. There was a bit of a scrabble to be the first, but we’re all grown-ups here (ahem). And so began the beginning of the end of the Neapolitan novels. Our lone proof has travelled to Greece, Ireland, Amsterdam, Hackney, Finsbury Park, Walthamstow and Bounds Green. It has experienced two tube strikes. Sun cream was spilled on it. A fly was squashed it its pages. By the end it was covered in all kinds of extraneous stuff. But however shabby, it was worth it.
And it’s not just us who are raving about it. Margaret Drabble wrote: “The fourth volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet brings her ambitious project to a triumphant, satisfying, baffling and unsettling conclusion.” The Independent wrote: “[W]hat Ferrante has achieved is a perfect marriage of immense storytelling with chillingly effective literary artistry.” The Observer thinks “It is the first work worthy of the Nobel prize to have come out of Italy for many decades.”
#ferrantefever continues to grip the world. Even James Franco is in on it. So to round off our posts on this incredible work of fiction, we’d like to share our thoughts on The Story of the Lost Child.
[Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. It’s a big task reading almost two thousand pages of fiction, and we know not everyone will have finished yet. Here you will find only our gushing, swooning and very general thoughts.]
Although we (obviously) started this read-and-discuss project in an effort to promote a much-hyped series to the book trade, we all found ourselves moved in different ways. And we know that you get it. Enough. Turnaround has a slightly-worrying obsession with Elena Ferrante. You’re a bit tired of us explaining how the fires of our hearts burn so hot for her writing, but not quite being able to hit the nail on the head when it comes to ‘why’. The thing is, we don’t really mind if you’re bored hearing us talk about the Neapolitan Novels, because we will never get bored of talking about them, and we will keep doing so until we convince every last straggling doubter to do the same.
This is hardly a choice, but a force born from the frenzied power that explodes from the first page of the first novel, digging its claws into you and refusing to let go until you reach the final tragically beautiful whisper of the fourth. With a raw and frenzied energy, Ferrante asks us to consider so many aspects of the human condition. She dares to consider what it means to be a human versus what it means to be a woman, while also questioning why those two things aren’t in fact the same. Through the microcosms of Naples and Italy as a whole, she ponders the state of society in the Post-war world. Most intimately, she asks us to reflect on our personal relationships, reminding us that love and hate are not always mutually exclusive. Together, the four novels – coming in at a whopping 1,720 pages – have what I can only describe as a lingering effect.
With all that, I’m not really going to talk about The Story of the Lost Child in itself, but I hope we’ve convinced you that this novel is the dizzyingly good culmination of a true must-read series. I truly envy all of you who still have the opportunity to read it for the first time.
I read Lost Child in Greece, on Lesvos. It was the kind of holiday where you sit on a beach and drink iced coffee/beer under an umbrella, broken up by swimming. I hadn’t had this kind of holiday for probably a decade, so I unapologetically hijacked our only proof.
Reading about a hot climate while in one sucked me further into the story than I already was. And despite the break between Those Who Leave and Lost Child, it felt as though no time had passed at all. In the spirit of not giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say first that I can’t actually imagine a better, more resonant ending to the quartet. Lost child is both brutal and generous. The friendship between Elena and Lila, which has been ripped apart and patched back together so many times, feels so authentic by this point. They are both mothers, and are battling with that. They have both, in a way, defied the odds of oppression and misogyny to grow successful at what they do. But they are still very much tied to the neighbourhood that shaped them. The poverty and the violence they grew up with still exist. So do the people they grew up with; characters we have followed throughout the other books. And no matter what drama occurs, they deal with it. They don’t shy away from it or go insane with it. They take people for what they are. I suppose what I mean by that is that they have grown up. And Ferrante has managed to make their growing brilliantly (at times painfully) believable.
When I finished the book (after two days of being incredibly anti-social) I had to go for a very long swim. I felt bereft, and was experiencing emotions. All four books absolutely live up to the hype, which is rare. And from now on I’ll probably be gifting people with Ferrante whether they are interested in reading her or not.
On an end note: it’s awesome that Ferrante included a queer character in the series (I can’t say more because it will be a spoiler). And also, fuck you, Nino Sarratore.
I’ve spoken about two of the things that moved me most about the Neapolitan novels already; the depiction of friendship (in our post on My Brilliant Friend) and of social class (in our post on The Story of a New Name).* Here, I’m going to talk about mental illness.
In Book One, Lila talks about her fear of ‘boundaries dissolving.’ In Book Two, her disassociation from her body. In Book 3, the ferocity with which she lives her life, and her perceived inability to not live in this way – her inability to phase in to the humdrum nature of the present moment. In Book 4, her feelings of a lack of control engendered by being unable to trace the history of her city and those in it back to a point of origin. It gives her a feeling of chaos and also responsibility, she can never understand enough. She can never truly be in control of the narratives of those around her because there are factors at play that she will never understand.
In a way, what’s nice about the Neapolitan novels is precisely that they don’t over pathologise, so I’m loathe to jump in with a glib little ‘well it sounds to me like Lila is suffering from X Y or Z disorder’ type comment. What I will say is that if you have suffered with mental illness or been closely involved in the life of a loved one who has, there are experiences Ferrante caustically describes Lila enduring that will feel familiar.
*Note – I only didn’t contribute to our Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay post as I was in a village in Spain at the time my Turnaround compatriots wrote it. I wish the record to show that my opinion on this title is that it is also BLOODY EXCELLENT and that I missed the opportunity to say so earlier only due to a literal ocean being in the way. I don’t want to loose my steadfast reputation of talking about Ferrante whenever possible.
After being slowly but steadily drawn into the world of Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood for three chunky novels, I was in awe of Ferrante’s ability in The Story of the Lost Child to blow that whole world up. The careful and considered psychological writing of the first three remains here, but is usurped mostly by a thriller plot that takes on community catastrophe, familial tragedy and romantic failure. It’s no spoiler to say that Book Four is just as grim as the rest of them, but this installment in the series packs more of a punch when delivering Ferrante’s trademark devastation.
It is, however, easy to give spoilers away with this book as *so much* happens, so I think it might be best to talk more about the experience of reading it than divulge any plot details – though there really is no excuse for not having read it yet!
I finished the Neapolitan novels over a month ago, and my reading choice has been completely dominated by Ferrante ever since. I picked up some non-fiction fairly by a standard male writer type that I’d been previously excited about and virtually spat at it in scorn for spending too many pages on the minutiae of his boring middle-class British life. A novel by an author of one of my favourite books of all time was wearily endured and I regularly considered abandoning ship when he described vaginas as ‘sad’ – something that would have depressed me had I read Ferrante or not, but it was much more disappointing with her writing still in my mind.
The fact was, I just couldn’t spend time on novels that didn’t challenge dominant social structures like gender and class oppression. Without ever being an overtly activist text, The Story of the Lost Child turned out to be the best #ReadWomen campaign I ever encountered. Since then the only thing I’ve read written by a man has been about two women, and I’ve been dosing my Ferrante Fever with more experimental genres than I would have chosen before reading her. You’re left reeling after the quartet in a way that ups your standards magnificently.
I’m grateful to the elusive Ferrante not only for writing the best series of novels I’ve ever read, but also for making me a more demanding reader. Give me fully-formed female characters with complicated relationships outside of their romantic lives or give me death!
I opened The Story of the Lost Child with the same kind of trepidation I always feel when experiencing finales. It’s the same feeling I had as I began the final series of The Wire; or read Cities of the Plain; or even, yes, watched the last World Cup final. Namely, that I had loved everything that preceded this climactic (and, importantly, well signposted) denouement; could it possibly maintain the same high standard? And much as it pains me to say it, I couldn’t help feeling a little underwhelmed, despite the best efforts of McNulty, McCarthy and Müller.
Elena Ferrante, of course, is different.
At the heart of this finale is a disappearance, an absence that we have known about from the beginning; a notion almost at odds with the restless, seething life on every page of the Neapolitan Novels. It is this final vacuum that Ferrante is working towards in Lost Child, and which frequently seems unattainable in the face of the cataclysmic upheaval she visits upon her characters – which is almost Biblical in places.
As Lila and Lenu’s worlds begin to converge and break each other apart, like continental shelves, we are again reminded that we are only seeing one side of the story. Again, Lenu’s forensic examinations of her own heart are depicted in riveting detail, but it is the elusive, unknowable Lila who keeps us reading. But when a crack finally appears in her hardened exterior, about two thirds of the way through, we glimpse something unexpected and unsettling. It frightens us because it has been there all along, unmentioned and mysterious, much like the absence at the heart of the story. Much like the author herself.
It’s a mark of the quality of Ferrante’s writing that I (and I think everyone else on the Turnaround team) have found it so difficult to curtail and edit our thoughts on the Neapolitan Novels . She invites analysis, fandom, respect, enthusiasm of the most overwhelming and uninhibited kind. There are essays, books even, to be written about these novels. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, classics, and will only grow in stature as the years pass. And Ferrante herself? Well, that doesn’t matter. As she herself says ‘I have already done enough for this book. I have written it.’
That wraps up Turnaround’s reviews of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. It’s been fun. We’re sad it’s over. We wish we could read them all again from the beginning. At least there is more Ferrante to read. Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter, and Troubling Love still, thankfully, await us. But for now we are still wrapped up in Elena and Lila, and we want to talk about them!
And don’t forget to watch out for Fragments, a collection of Ferrante’s non-fiction, letters and rare interviews, out in January from Europa Editions.