The Story of the Lost Child
By Elena Ferrante. Europa, 480 pp, softcover
“Hotly anticipated” might be an understatement when it comes to the final book in enigmatic Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy.
Her snowballing popularity during the publication of the previous three translations was amplified by her unwavering decision to remain anonymous. (Elena Ferrante is a pen name.)
The resulting think pieces—some of which even claim Ferrante, widely heralded as Italy’s most important contemporary author, is really a man—have only added to her mystique. In the lead-up to her new book’s release, bookstores across the continent braced for launch parties and a popular Twitter hashtag emerged to unite her fans’ more viral sentiments: #ferrantefever. (The only known cure is more Ferrante.)
Well, luckily for the afflicted, The Story of the Lost Child is potent enough to make their literary malaise go into remission. The story begins where the last one left off: Elena, now a successful author at age 32, has ditched her husband and two children to pursue romance with her childhood love, Nino. This personal scandal provides a good lead-in to the social ferment of the 1970s and, in general, to the book’s rampant sexual and political intrigue, tragedies, and violence.
The story, which spans more than 30 years, delves into some big themes—autonomy and love, feminism, and the nature of friendship (predominantly seen through Elena’s relationship with her hot-tempered best friend, Lila)—but her most interesting observations are on power. After Elena overcomes an impoverished childhood in Naples, she’s critical of how she did so—she sees how the status quo is maintained, and how easy it is to lose things of value. Of course, sharp-eyed Lila observes it even more clearly: “Here is Vesuvio,” she tells Elena’s daughter, alluding to events both literal and figurative, “which reminds you every day that the greatest undertaking of powerful men, the most splendid work, can be reduced to nothing in a few seconds by the fire, and the earthquake, and the ash, and the sea.”
As in the rest of the series, Ferrante’s writing is spare, fierce, and meticulously detailed; as John Waters once quipped on Vine, she could be “the best angry woman writer ever”. All told, The Story of the Lost Child fares well under the special sort of scrutiny facing the final volume in any popular series: it really does tie up all the loose ends, delivering a mix of drama and social critique that should make pretty much everyone happy, even Ferrante’s most hopelessly incurable fans.
The work of Elena Ferrante will be discussed in an October 24 event titled Elena Ferrante: A Literary Mystery, at this year's Vancouver Writers Fest.