It is not very common for a book written in a foreign language to be “all the rage” in English. “The Story of the Lost Child” by Italian writer Elena Ferrante is one of the top 10 books of 2015 according to both The New York Times and The Guardian (Great Britain).
This is the fourth book in the Neopolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante, an author who remains firmly anonymous. We don’t even know if she is a woman. The four books are: My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name”, “The Story of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” and “The Story of the Lost Child.” They should be read in sequence.
The quartet spans 60 years in the turbulent lives of Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo, two girls from a dismal Naples neighborhood. Born in 1944, the two girls, who call each other Lenù and Lila, are at the same time best friends and fierce competitors.
The stories are told through the eyes of Elena, the more cautious and conscientious girl who eventually escapes the neighborhood (at least temporarily) through diligent study and becomes a writer. Lila is impulsive and daring with sharp elbows and a sharp tongue. She leaves school early (at least by our standards), marries young, and starts a successful business. But she remains trapped with her artistic gifts never realized. While Lila tends to be aggressive and manipulative, she can also be devoted and generous. Elena needs to feel she has surpassed her childhood friend, whose brilliance she has always envied.
The relationship between Elena and Lila remain at the center of all 4 novels. Over time, as age and misfortune take their toll, the relationship changes and mutates, yet somehow remains the same.
There are many other characters in the quartet but perhaps the most prominent is Naples itself. The primary setting is a poor, violent, and corrupt neighborhood in post-war Naples. It becomes even more tumultuous as Communists, Socialists, and right-wingers collide in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet it is Naples that inspired Lenù and Lila as young girls to skip school and to explore beyond the neighborhood to try to find the sea.
At the base of Mount Vesuvius, Naples is a place so beautiful and heartbreaking that it inspired the expression, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori”—See Naples and then die.”