And so to the final book in the quartet of Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Novels’ : ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ . (For background see my reviews of the previous books ‘My Brilliant Friend’, ‘The Story of a New Name‘ and ‘Those who leave and those who stay’). This book covers a wide span of time, from the early 70s to the present day and sees Lenù and Lila live through the rest of their youth and middle age to become older women in their 60s. The pull of Naples and the neighbourhood is strong and we see Lenù returning to live there, but always with mixed feelings as violence and corruption are still part of life there.
The novel starts with Lenù having left her husband Pietro with her daughters and going off to Montpellier with her lover , Nino Sarratore, whom, readers will remember, she has adored since girlhood. Their intense and passionate love affair is the driving force through the first half of the book, as well as the complications which then ensue for Lenù, not least the break with the powerful Airota family and the damage that does to her career. She leaves Pietro and Florence and returns to live in Naple’s comfortable and middle class Via Tossa with her two daughters, Dede and Elsa, but still spending time with Lila and her family in the neighbourhood. Not wishing to give too much away, Lenù ends up moving from the Via Tossa to a dingy flat in the neighbourhood where she brings up her now three daughters (Imma being the daughter of Nino Sarratore) and stays there till they leave home.
The personal story, which kept me gripped with some unexpected and dramatic turns of events, is set as before, against the political and historical developments in Italy and Europe at that time. We see the anxiety around political activism and terrorism when Lenù and Nino go to Germany and are arrested and questioned before a wall of mug shots of the German Baader Meinhof group. The assassination of Aldo Moro is referred to. In the latter part of the book, which takes place in the 90s, the corruption of figures in public office is dealt with and several characters in the book spend time in prison on corruption charges. There is also a terrifying account of Lenù and Lila’s experience of the Italian earthquake.
The changes in class and gender relations which took place in the period covered by the book are also explored. The Airotas’ rejection of Lenù at the beginning of the book includes a rejection on the grounds of her class. They call both her and Nino ‘unreliable’ in terms of their views and behaviour, because, though educated, they have come from nowhere and ‘for a person who is no one to become someone is more important than anything else’. Adele, having supported Lenù’s writing career before, attempts to pull class and influence to turn publishers against her. However, their pulling up of the class drawbridge is only effective for so long: Lenù’s books are successful despite her ex mother-in- law, their beloved son Pietro eventually breaks with his father over political differences and Guido Airota is involved in the corruption scandal for which he does time.
Relationships between men and women are shown as complex and changing. Though Pietro is an unexciting husband for Lenù as a young woman, he is a decent man and a responsible father and in this novel is a helpful support to his ex wife and daughters over the years. Nino, though espousing all sorts of principles of equality, and purporting to love and understand women, will not put himself out or compromise his life one bit to help the family in practical ways. Women continue to be able to live independently from men-Lenù finally brings up her girls as a single parent and it is her neighbours, Lila and Enzo, which she relies on for day to day support.
One very moving part of the story for me was the coming together of Lenù and her mother as her mother becomes ill and is dying. Her mother, as an uneducated working class woman, has had a very different life from Lenù and we have seen her at times kind and supportive but at others hugely critical and dismissive, emphasised in the vehement and at times violent expressions which the women fling at each other in anger. But now, Lenù has more compassion and empathy with her mother and in the weeks they spend together her mother tells how much she loved her as a child, over and above her other children, and we get a glimpse of what her daughter’s success means to this woman.
As in the other books writing itself is a theme here, but explored further. Lenù continues to make her living from books which are controversial: her book set in Naples causes an uproar in some circles as her protagonists -including the Solara brothers- are too easily identifiable. Lila, who has frequently seen Lenù as a keeper of the writing flame, suggests that through writing an account of the Solara brothers’ wrongdoings, they may be able to get them sent to jail and restore peace and justice to the neighbourhood. However, their article does not achieve this, and this, together with her daughters’ bemusement on perusing her books later on, lead us to question the power of words to effect change, to influence things. And we are also shown the potential damage to relationships caused by writing and publication.
So what do we make of Lenù and Lila and their friendship at the end of the Neapolitan novels? Two bright little girls who take different paths, they both become resourceful and independent women, their lives reflecting the changes in society and in gender and family relationships in the second half of the twentieth century. The final pages of this last novel return to the beginning of the first and the mysterious disappearance of Lila. Her character remained complex and elusive for me throughout the books and her vanishing is in line with the ambiguity and contradiction running through her character and life.
I enjoyed these novels enormously- because the period they were set in is my time, but because of the complexity and development of character which their sweep allows. Ferrante artfully weaves the stories of her large cast in and out of the narrative, reminding us where they fit in- and the list of characters at the front of each novel is very helpful. She is able to evoke mood, tone and atmosphere as in the account of the summer in Ischia as well as to maintain tension and introduce twists in the plot which kept me gripped. And I finished this, as with many good, big books, with a tinge of sadness- it’s a bit like saying goodbye to old friends. But not sad for long -I’m hoping to meet some new ones in the next Ferrante on my list!