The Story of the Lost Child Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

Review contains spoilers.

Does the world need another Ferrante review?  No.  Does the world need my thoughts on the finale of the Neapolitan quartet?  Definitely not.  On that basis I shouldn’t be writing this, but I’m in completist mode and I did review the first three books on Shiny New Books last year.  It would be a shame not to finish what I started.

The benefit of that SNB piece is that I can quickly remind myself of my expectations when cracking open volume 4.  They included the hope of a thrilling and shocking climax and the hope that Lenu would come to her senses.  Let’s take them in reverse sequence.

In this story of a long and troubled friendship, Lenu has been the fortunate one.  Thanks to her parents’s sacrifices for the sake of her education, she escaped the neighbourhood, enjoyed a university education, and by the time book 4 starts has established a literary career of her own.  At the same time, she makes a highly unintelligent choice and runs away from her husband with a deeply unsuitable man.  It’s going to end in tears.  It does, along with anger and recriminations, but not before Lenu has a love child.  This, by the way, is a woman who has already established that she cannot sacrifice her career for the demands of motherhood.  Can I scream now?

The inevitable breakup leaves her a single-parent and finds her moving back to the Neapolitan neighbourhood of her childhood, where, thankfully there is no shortage of childminders, paid or unpaid, to take care of her 3 children (2 by her ex-husband) while she’s off flying around the world on jaunts with various lovers or book tours.  While the neighbourhood is an ugly and dangerous place to be (she constantly bemoans its bad influence on her children), she stays because it provides plenty of material for her pen.  It’s not until her two elder children move away to join her ex-husband (I wonder why she says sarcastically), that she thinks it might be better to remove herself from the area before she loses her third daughter also.

I completely lost patience with her.  Her professional reputation is that of a feminist but I’m avoiding that word, because she’s a poor ambassador. At times Lenu became as vain, self-centred, egotistical and deluded as her waistrel of a lover, Nino.

(This, by the way, is a complete reversal of my feelings as they were at the end of book two.)

My relationship with Lila travelled on an opposite trajectory. She’s not easy to like, and I can’t say I ever did, but I grew to respect her.  She has suffered a life of hard knocks – the refusal of her parents to educate her, an abusive and violent first marriage, working her way through a succession of menial jobs to become a successful business woman, at the same time never leaving her kids to fend for themselves with strangers, struggling with a difficult first son and still having the generosity to become a quasi surrogate mother to Lenu’s daughters.

I suppose this is Ferrante’s novel of motherhood.  While Lenu whinges and makes excuses for herself, Lila gets on it with, practically, and, surprisingly for a woman with so many jagged edges, lovingly. The things that threatened to take over the domestic concerns at the end of book three (politics, feminism, terrorism, organised crime) are almost relegated to background noise.  Long expected assassinations cause nothing but short-term ripples.  Daily, domestic life goes on, and, with it, ongoing psychological torments.

So what about my shocking climax? We know from the beginning of book one that Lila has disappeared, and that she and Lenu were not in contact for years prior to that.  Finally the mystery is solved. It’s not at all what I expected at the start of book 4, but becomes inevitable as life throws that final horrible curveball at her.  Poor Lila. Poor, poor Lila.


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