Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Does one woman having it all, mean another must lose it all?

In this final installment, at the peak of their successes, Elena and Lila are reunited in Naples as mature mothers. This time Lila bails Elena out, helping with childcare to allow her friend the time to organize her life as a famous writer and social critic. But then vicissitude follows vicissitude, as the pair struggle against the unfaithful nature of men, drug addiction, the Mafia, inertia and just plain evil. Eventually, as older women, suspicious of betrayal, the pair is bitterly separated. Elena, in the waning years of her life, possesses the trappings of worldly achievement and three confident successful daughters, with Lila just another crazy old crone wandering the wrong side of the stradone.

It’s a shame this work of art had to be marketed as four separate books when it is truly one integrated volume. The only way to understand the ending is to reread the opening of the first book. And don’t even try reading this installment without reading the others. You won’t get it. The first part of The Story of the Lost Child was a little confusing, although soon I was sucked into the game between Lila and Elena, the old fashioned plotting, the hooks and the threats at the end of each chapter. At times it felt slightly ridiculous, one operatic event after another, reminding me of the fotoromanzi I used to inherit from my Italian cousins. The first three books of this series handled the girls from age six to thirty – the last book zips through thirty-five years, concluding the Odyssey they are on (I use that term deliberately). The good girl gets rewarded and the bad girl gets punished. There is one critical scene in the book, the scene that changes everything, and the interpretation of that scene can be very different. Lila and Elena certainly have different views of it. Things conclude pretty bleakly - when you are old time runs out. There is no hope. Best to have money and a Labrador you can amuse yourself with.

Throughout, the unreliable narrator Elena is afraid of being found out that she is not such an intellectual after all, not such a great writer. Elena fears Lila is writing a book about Naples, a great book about Naples, one that will outshine whatever Elena has written. Did Elena wrote the book of Lila or did Lila write the book of Elena? And yet, this entire world has been summoned into being by Elena. Right? The end makes you wonder if these determinedly realistic books even took place in the plane of reality.

The book is not just about the relationship between the two friends. That is the frame in which Ferrante discusses modernity, the status of women, and recent Italian history. She makes it a point to show that Elena’s sex life at fifteen and her daughter’s sex life at fifteen are totally different. Supposedly liberated, Elena falls into becoming some jackoff’s mistress. At other times, some culturally Italian things don’t translate well – the whole cuckoldry thing, the Mafia guy falling in love with the gay guy.

Lila’s fear is taking the tunnel leading out of the stradone. Elena is spurred on to conquer that fear, to escape. A key question is: who is the lost little girl? (La bambina perduta) It’s Lila, I think her potential crushed by an overbearing culture that crushes women and the poor and the uneducated.  Maybe her potential crushed by something inside - something inside that Elena rejects.  The story is about two dolls, two little girls, two women, two new little girls. And at the end, back to the two little dolls. 

The people seemed so real to me, their travails affected me and I thought about them in the middle of the night, almost have to forcibly remind myself – you don’t need to worry about them, they are made up.

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