The trend of serialized literary novels comes and goes, but it seems to be having a particularly robust resurgence over the past 15 years, from the Gilead books of Marilynne Robinson to the Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn, and the autobiographical sagas of Karl Knausgaard.
It seems certain now that Elena Ferrante will be queen of the new mega-novelists. For the past four years she has been publishing one volume every fall about Elena Greco, a woman raised in Naples in the late 1950s, when the modern state of Italy was new and the opportunities a woman could expect very few.
“The Story of the Lost Child,” the fourth and last of the so-called Neapolitan series, caps the slow, patient evolutionary tale of a life fully lived. Every single seemingly throw-away encounter and narrative thread Ferrante wove into the prior books returns, and the scale of this tapestry is simply awesome. Old romances; the tiny slights of a domineering mother; the status anxieties of growing up parochial: Ferrante has written a book that feels as rich and layered as life itself.
In book one, when Elena is growing up in a hardscrabble Naples neighborhood, the streets barely have names. Italy is itself a kind of non-entity. All there are embraced as family, especially Lila, Elena’s smart, tough-nosed friend, the daughter of a shoemaker. In book two, the world gets a bit bigger, as Elena learns how easily her hard-fought independence might be crushed when she, not Lila, attends university, and her once promising friend disappears into an ill-advised marriage.
By book three, Elena and Lila are in their mid-thirties, and again roles shift. Lila’s marriage has broken down, leaving her nearly destitute, while Elena’s career as a novelist begins to take off. Her marriage to Pietro, a solidly middle-class intellectual, flourishes. This novel is narrated by Elena in an increasingly lucid, knowing, self-conscious voice, one beginning to understand why the life she leads may not be enough.
“The Story of the Lost Child” unfolds in the tones of a woman who has come into her own. Much has happened, and while Elena rushes to keep up with the pace of events — new affairs, new pregnancies, returns of old enemies, an earthquake, the loss of a child — she also begins questioning her fidelity to her ideals. She does not doubt her memory, but rather, struggles with the gap between her actions and what she thinks about a woman’s independence.
Ferrante moves so nimbly between narration and reflection that the two nearly merge in her telling. In the middle of a roaring fight with her mother, for example, the older woman tearing at her with rage and tears, Elena worries, “I also have to account for the fact that I am the daughter of this woman.” What else could tell us more about the difference between these two generations than this question?
Ferrante — who writes under a pseudonym — emerged full-throated and with bared-teeth in 2005 in “Days of Abandonment,” a novel about a woman after her husband walks out on her. The story seethes with the white fury of a woman scorned. It is the book you do not want your ex reading; it is the novel you can only read sanely once the rubble has been cleared.
Were that her masterpiece, Ferrante would probably be remembered as James Salter will — a writer of finesse who understood, better than most, the violence that lovers can do to one another. The Naples novels chart new territory, however, for they put this war between the sexes within the context of motherhood: Every step toward independence that Elena takes is doubly hamstrung by her duty to her children and the judgment of her conservative mother.
Half of this last installment concerns the slow-motion dissolution of her marriage and her unstable affair with Nino, formerly Lila’s lover, who is married and will not leave his wife. Elena shapes her new life to fit his. “In spite of all the talk,” Elena wonders, “was I letting myself be invented by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?”
Circumstances bring Elena back to Naples in the 1970s in “The Story of the Lost Child,” and Lila reenters her life for the first time in a decade, once again making the structure of the book a trio of two characters amid a singular place. Elena struggles mightily against sinking back into the old neighborhood, “that area that seemed to be infinitesimal” as she puts it. (In fact, the second she arrives you can almost hear the resignation of Al Pacino in “The Godfather’’ films — “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”) The specters of her childhood walk about, all around her, and the frame of Elena’s reference is suddenly returned to childhood.
In this way, “The Story of the Lost Child” beautifully evokes that accordion-like compression of time which can happen in middle age — when struggles with children, sick parents, finances, or all of the above show that the past was never really gone but merely dormant. How quickly all of its power and control can return. All the ideas learned or acquired in schooling or through improvisation can seem frivolous, or even decadent, in the face of the one true reality — that we are from somewhere and from some people. In this magnificent, tragic book, Elena Ferrante makes it clear that these are not punishments, but gifts.
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD
By Elena Ferrante
Translated, from the Italian,
by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 473 pp., paperback, $18
John Freeman is author of “Tales of Two Cities: The Best of Times and Worst of Times in Today’s New York” and editor of “Freeman’s,” a literary biannual out next month.