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The Story Of The Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

Ah, here we are: the last of the Neapolitan novels. Sitting down to read The Story Of The Lost Child felt like sitting down to goodbye drinks with an old friend the night before they leave town. Having followed Lena and Lila through childhood (My Brilliant Friend), adolescence (The Story Of A New Name), and young adulthood (Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay), this last installment follows them as they mature into old age. It has been translated, as always, from the original Italian into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein.

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Lena says early on in The Story Of The Lost Child that this is “the most painful part of the story” and (spoiler alert) she’s spot on. I think this might be the most intensely felt of all the Neapolitan novels, more deeply impactful than even the sharp angst of My Brilliant Friend.

It begins in a time of painful contrasts for narrator Lena: the passion of a long-awaited love affair with Nino and the satisfaction of a revitalised career, experienced simultaneously with complete social, marital, and familial collapse. She officially leaves her husband Pietro, and believes that Nino too has left his wife… but Lila, as always, comes around with a big bucket full of truth and dumps it over Lena’s head. Nino hasn’t left his wife, and doesn’t intend to.

Even when he knocks Lena up, he stays with his wife, and splits his time between two households. Lila gets pregnant at the same time (by Enzo, with whom she still lives and runs a computer business). Finally, Lena and Lila’s lives are on the same track. They go to gyno appointments together, commiserate over the symptoms of pregnancy, and become close once again.

They grow even closer when Lena discovers Nino is cheating on her with the housekeeper, and moves into a small apartment right above Lila’s. They have daughters the same age, they trade off dinners and childcare, it’s all very Modern, takes-a-village, etc.

The big catalyst of The Story Of The Lost Child is that Lena, in desperation and lacking time to write new work, submits a copy of her old manuscript – a novel about her childhood in Naples – for publication. Apparently, being back in the old neighbourhood makes her prose just a bit too vivid. The dangerous Solaras family recognise themselves in the pages, and the ramifications – not just for Lena, but for everyone in her orbit – are huge. (There’s a hint in the title…)

I won’t reveal the Big Twists from that point (got to hold something back, eh?), but the ending – oooft! It was better than I could have ever imagined. Standing ovation. Even after thousands of pages, Ferrante still surprised me and delighted me and made my heart twist in my chest. The end of The Story Of The Lost Child is absolutely breathtaking.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Of The Lost Child, finishing it felt bittersweet. I know there are other Ferrante books to read (some of them are already crowded into my to-read shelf!), and I’m a bit too Mature(TM) to mope about fictional characters… but still! I’m amazed and impressed with how the story ended, but quite sad that there’s no more of it for me to discover.

Some project for some future year – “when I have time”, ha! – will be to sit down and re-read all of the Neapolitan novels from start to finish, but back-to-back this time (instead of one per year, as I’ve done since 2018). I wish I could do it immediately, if I’m being honest, but naturally there are other books to be read and things to be done that have to take priority. It’s one for the bucket list.

If you’re wondering whether undertaking to read the Neapolitan novels is worth it, the answer (according to the authority of me) is absolutely YES. If you’re wondering whether the story runs out of fizz by the time you get to The Story Of The Lost Child, the answer (according to the authority of me) is a resounding NO. Of course, the series has its ups and downs, and every reader will respond differently to parts of such a complex and multi-faceted work, but on the whole: W. O. R. T. H. I. T!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of The Lost Child:

  • “Who wrote those words? An algorithm? If the writer is human, she seems afraid to reveal the self behind her work. I find that irritating and cowardly. What is she hiding from? The Mob? Whatever. Brilliant marketing of four novels that could easily have been edited to one. Bravo on that point.” – rc
  • “Glad my female friends and I are not this complicated.” – Sucarichi
  • “I am not a corpse, therefore I loved this novel. The only problem with it is the depression I feel having reached the last page.” – Agaricus
  • “Without doubt written by a non Italian. 4 books and not one mention of Napoli the football team. No mention of Italy wining the World Cup. Ridiculous! No Mention of the Roman Catholic Upbringing ALL characters would have had. No mention of the local chapel and the priests. Pure fantasy!” – C. Caughey

In The Margins – Elena Ferrante

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Elena Ferrante could write a long-form essay about making toast for breakfast, and I would want to read it. So, it was a pleasant bonus when Europa Editions (via Allen & Unwin) sent me In The Margins, a collection of her essays about topics I happen to love – reading and writing.

The collection contains four essays, originally written to be presented as a lecture series (by an actress, to protect Ferrante’s anonymity), translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Each essay offers rare insight into Ferrante’s own influences, struggles, and motivations in writing.

Even though the essays in In The Margins were ostensibly written for a generalist audience, Ferrante’s language, expression, and references still feel quite advanced and academic. It isn’t a TED talk.

Ferrante interrogates the origins of the ideas and themes she explores in her own work – as such, if you haven’t read through Ferrante’s backlist, be prepared for spoilers.

In The Margins requires a concentrated mind, and probably (like most of Ferrante’s work) re-reading. I found my mind wandering, in a way that it doesn’t when I read Ferrante’s fiction – I’m not sure if that’s me or her. The anecdotes from Ferrante’s reading and writing life, the tiny peeks behind the mask, were wonderful and memorable, but the rest will take more consideration.

Read my reviews of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend, here.

5 Books Recommended By Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is as enigmatic as she is fabulous. She’s the world’s most famous living pseudonymous writer – you could pass her on the street and not even know it! One of the small glimpses she has given us into her “real” life is a list of books she recommends. You can check out the full list of forty here, but this post is dedicated to the creme de la creme, five books recommended by Elena Ferrante that are KUWTP-tested and approved!

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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It’s hardly a surprise that Elena Ferrante would love and recommend Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 best-seller. Like her Neapolitan novels, A Little Life is a biography of a friendship, following it from youth through to the end of life. Perhaps if it had been published, in its 800+ page glory, before Ferrante’s Neapolitan series went to press, her publisher might have conceded to printing all four books as a single volume (which, she has said, is how she wrote them and how they were intended). Ferrante’s recommendation also tells us that she must have plenty of reading time on her hands: A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG, and with a trove of detail on every page it’s definitely not skimmable. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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I was surprised to see The Year Of Magical Thinking on the list of books recommended by Elena Ferrante, if only because I tend to associate it more with Didion’s millennial fans (Ferrante being, presumably, a bit older than that). Ferrante would probably have been introduced to Didion during her earlier hey-day, in the Slouching Towards Bethlehem era. Still, it’s wonderful to see that this memoir of grief and rumination resonates with Didion readers across the age brackets. If you squint, you can see some parallels between Didion as she represents herself on the page and Ferrante’s characters: women who are introspective, bookish, and intense.

Breasts And Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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Elena Ferrante recommended a number of books in translation, but my favourite is Breasts And Eggs by Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami. My edition was translated into English by Sam Bett and David Boyd, but I assume that Ferrante read it translated into Italian by Gianluca Coci (Seni e Uova). I wonder what might have changed in the story, what might be lost or found in the translation that Ferrante read and loved. At its core, presumably, the story remained the same: three women reckoning with what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan. (Psst: Ferrante’s not the only one who loves Kawakami’s work – Haruki Murakami called her Japan’s “most important contemporary novelist”!) Read my full review of Breasts And Eggs here.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison’s Beloved has become a classic of contemporary literature, and it’s rare that you see a list of books recommended by any author that doesn’t include it – Elena Ferrante’s list of book recommendations is no exception! It is a “towering achievement” of a novel that “stares into the abyss of slavery”, according to the blurb, but it’s also a heart-wrenching depiction of the grief and trauma of womanhood and the lived experience of the black body. Like Ferrante, Morrison’s prose is evocative in the extreme, and you’ll be transported by it. Read my full review of Beloved here.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

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Of all the books recommended by Elena Ferrante, Blonde might be the one that surprised me most. After all, Oates’ oeuvre is huge (58 novels, plus plays and poetry and short stories and novellas and…) – why would Ferrante choose the fictionalised life of movie star-slash-sex symbol Marilyn Monroe? Because it’s brilliant, of course! Oates takes some imaginative leaps, sure, but that’s all in service of providing a whole new perspective on the life of Norma Jean, one that will unsettle and discomfit you in ways you couldn’t possibly expect. This is another tough read (seriously, Ferrante, what about a rom-com?!) but a very worthy one.

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante

I am gradually making my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (see my thoughts on books one and two, My Brilliant Friend and The Story Of A New Name). Today, I turn to book three in the series, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (or, in the original Italian, Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta), first published in 2014. It documents the “Middle Time” in the lives of Elena and Lila, their adulthood proper against the tumultuous backdrop of Italy in the 1960s and 70s.

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Elena re-introduces the story by describing the last time she saw Lila, skipping ahead briefly to 2005, when they were out for a walk in Naples and a body was discovered in a nearby garden, that of their childhood friend Gigliola Spagnuolo. “The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same,” Elena says. Then, her mind reels back to where The Story Of A New Name left off, at the reading of Elena’s debut novel.

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay tells two very different stories – Elena’s and Lila’s – almost entirely separate from one another. Lila already has a child, she has left her husband and is living in sin with the kind-hearted computer student Enzo. She works in a salami factory where the conditions and pay are (needless to say) very shitty. That makes her a poster-child for the communists, who take up Lila’s supposed “cause” and cause a whole lot of trouble for her along the way. Her “brilliant” mind saves her though; her encouragement and enthusiasm for Enzo’s computer studies leads her to learn alongside him, eventually joining him as an assistant at IBM. Towards the end of this installment, she takes on a highly-paid well-respected technician role of her own, working for the Solaras family (Michele Solaras is in love with Lila, and determined to keep her in his orbit).

Meanwhile, Elena enters into married life, happily at first, but after a while not so much. She has two children of her own, and attempts to write a second book. She seems to feel an overwhelming frustration with her life, but lacks Lila’s willingness to take any action to change it. She doesn’t even know what the “right” action would be. Both women have found themselves in cages, beating against the walls of patriarchy and politics, forced into misery and submission. Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay depicts how they each find their own escape route. For Lila, that comes through employment and empowerment, and for Elena, it’s a plane ticket for a trip with a man who is not her husband. Yes, that’s right, she and Nino finally get it on. Woo!

There’s a lot more politics in Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, compared to the earlier Neapolitan novels. I think that’s attributable to both the time period over which it’s set (with the sexual revolution and communist uprisings and whatnot) and Elena’s growing political awareness with age. As always, Ferrante has managed to distill the social unrest into the lives of her characters, without ever making Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay feel like an “issue” novel. Lila and Elena have to contend with pay disputes, domestic violence, state violence, contraception, and more, each in their own way. Ferrante’s subtlety is the master-stroke, with class distinctions cloaked in social niceties and language.

I must mention that in Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, I found the very first (albeit small) faults in Ann Goldstein’s translation. Goldstein has translated all of Ferrante’s work, and done a spectacular job of it, but in this one she was ending sentences with prepositions (drives me nuts!) and I found the occasional bum note which disrupted the “flow” of the story. The translation is still lyrical and beautiful and compulsively readable, don’t get me wrong – just perhaps not as superb and faultless as the others have been.

Ultimately, it was a pleasure, once again, to immerse myself in Lila and Elena’s “furious friendship”. The story naturally progresses beyond the bounds of their Naples neighbourhood and the youthful concerns of the previous novels, a very logical continuation akin to a well-written biography. Except Ferrante’s subject isn’t an individual, it’s a friendship and a country and a century. Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay is perhaps not my favourite of the Neapolitan novels, but honestly, Ferrante could write a novella about the one time Elena stepped in dog shit, and I would devour it with glee.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay:

  • “It would require an exorcism to remove Lila and Lenu from my heart and mind.” – Miss Lee Lee
  • “Once again Lila is testing the limits of a fifth grade education by becoming a computer engineer and business manager. Elena is being boring feeling sorry for herself most of the time. Skip it.” – Barbara Lerner
  • “I felt the characters became repetitive and was very annoyed at Lenu’s irrational insistence that she loved her child crush. She hardly knew the loser.” – Leslie000
  • “Exhausting continuation of dysfunctional relationships” – Debra D. Bandera

The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante

You should know that, as I write this, I am suffering a severe case of Ferrante Fever. Ever since I read My Brilliant Friend, I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the world’s most notable living pseudonymous author. That book was the first in the Neapolitan Quartet, a series of four novels (a “wildly original contemporary epic”) that follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grow up in mid-20th century Naples with all of the impoverishment, violence, and oppression that such a life entails. I can’t emphasise enough the delight of discovering an author who has such a glorious back-list to read through. I find myself spacing out my reading of Ferrante, trying to make the magic last as long as possible. Today, I share with you my thoughts on the second book in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story Of A New Name.

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The Story Of A New Name was first published in the original Italian in 2013, and shortly thereafter translated into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator). The story picks up after My Brilliant Friend leaves off, in the spring of 1966. Lila is a newlywed, and Lena is continuing her studies, exploring the world beyond the neighbourhood of their childhoods. Despite their diverging paths, their complex and evolving bond continues.

Lila gives Lena her Garner-esque diaries for safe-keeping, on the condition that her friend would never read them. Lena, of course, betrays that promise almost immediately (who among us wouldn’t? Come on, now!). Upon reading them, Lena is forced to re-evaluate her life, and Lila’s. Confronted by what she discovers (their childhoods being depicted with “ruthless accuracy”), she promptly throws the offending notebooks into a river.

I can’t even pretend that anything I say about The Story Of A New Name from here on won’t constitute “spoilers”, so proceed at your own peril…

Lila emerges from her honeymoon only to find herself living under a weight of expectation to become pregnant, though she doesn’t want to have children and she deeply resents her husband (he’s a dickhead, btw). Her first pregnancy is short-lived, and she miscarries at ten weeks. The town gossip suggests that her animosity kills any embryos that would embed in her womb (yep, that’s fucked). Given that her husband regularly beats and rapes her, who could blame her for being a bit ticked off? Their marriage is inherently political, intertwined with and influenced by their family business and their relationship with the Solaras brothers (basically the rich kids who have financed all their hopes and dreams… at a price).

Lila’s doctor prescribes “sun and swimming” (y’know, “for strength”) to facilitate her fertility, so she’s packed off to a summer beach holiday. Determined not to be trapped alone with her mother and her sister-in-law, she begs Lena to come with her. Lena has her own ulterior motive to accompany them: Nino, the unattainable intellectual object of her secret crush, will be “studying” at the beach, so Lena convinces Lila that’s the place to be for all this fertile “sun and swimming” business.

Most of The Story Of A New Name takes place on this beach holiday because, folks, it is full of drama – think your favourite reality show to the power of N. Remember how Lena harboured secret desires for Nino? Yeah, Lila – her best friend – hooks up with him instead. The affair is brief, but it still leaves Lila with a bun in the oven (gasp! pearl-clutching!), and she is forced to return to her husband who does not believe her (whether he’s deluding himself, or genuinely confused, who knows), when Lila says the child isn’t his.

Stefano – Lila’s husband – undertakes an affair of his own and his lover, Ada, becomes pregnant, too. Lila, quite understandably, is fed up with the bullshit and she leaves, despite the fact that she’s forced to move into a smaller, dodgier neighbourhood with her childhood fried, Enzo. Ada happily takes her place at Stefano’s side, with their kind-of-more-legitimate kid in their big house.

While all of this is going on, Lena – the actual narrator, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the story is “about” her because it’s really all “about” her brilliant friend – graduates from high school, and wins a scholarship to study at a university in Pisa. That’s all well and good, but she suffers from one of the most debilitating cases of imposter syndrome I’ve ever seen depicted in fiction. Lena doubts herself constantly: her intellect, her background, her aptitude…

And then there’s the fact that she’s sexually active. A young woman! Unmarried! Having sex! Can you believe it? Set aside the fact that it’s largely rooted in an earlier molestation: it’s scandalous! Eventually, she meets Pietro, a nice young bloke from an important family who doesn’t give a shit about her “reputation” (what a guy). He’s just happy to finally meet a girl he can talk to about old poetry and philosophy and politics.

When they graduate university, Pietro’s gift to Lena is an engagement ring, which she happily(?) accepts. In return, she gives him a hand-written novel. Unbeknownst to her, he passes it on to his mother, who uses her connections to have it placed at a publishing house. The book is released to popular success and critical acclaim, but Lena is disappointed and confused when she realises that no one from her old neighbourhood really gives a shit (her old teacher and former librarian, who fostered her young literary mind, are no longer around). The story ends with Lena attending her first public reading as a published author… where she realises that Nino is in attendance. Yes, that Nino, of the object-of-her-secret-desire-but-then-he-knocked-up-her-brilliant-friend fame.

Returning to the Neapolitan Quartet with The Story Of A New Name felt like picking up where I’d left off with old friends. I got to see how Lila and Lena “turned out”, what “happened next” for them. That might sound bleeding obvious to anyone who’s used to reading books in series, but mostly I read stand-alone novels, so for me it was wonderful. Lila was as manipulative and shrewd as ever, but still a sympathetic character – my feelings towards her were as ambivalent, contradictory, and ebbing as Lena’s own.

Thematically, The Story Of A New Name addresses many of the same issues as My Brilliant Friend: female friendship, class marginalisation, sexual expression, competitive relationships, the importance of literacy… The decisions of the girls’ parents in the first novel (Lena’s to allow her to continue her education, Lila’s to withdraw her from school at a young age) have ripple effects throughout their lives. The Neapolitan Quartet is effectively a Sliding Doors-epic. Both feel overshadowed and envious of the other, furious jealousy mingles with the unshakeable affection of shared experience… ugh. Ferrante is just too good for words. Too good.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of A New Name:

  • “It was kind of confusing. I didn’t like the beating the women received but I finished the book and the ending was worth it.” – Sue Campbell
  • “I loved it, but it’s a book for women. Therefore I can’t give it 5 stars. I don’t see many men with patience to read it through…” – Amazon Customer
  • “Interesting, but redundant . Perhaps touch like life .” – j toby
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