The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The books are often praised as being about friendship between women, and I myself have written a post about that here. However, I have started to wonder, after finishing this book, if the series is not more about social class and navigating an inherently corrupt world. It focuses on the influence of environment and violence upon a child growing up. Elena begins the books in poverty, in a bad neighborhood, and works hard throughout the series to rise in social position and recognition. Lila, on the other hand, stays in the neighborhood, receives no advanced education, and never, as far as Elena knows, travels outside of Naples.
The series begins with Elena and Lila’s friendship, when Lila throws Elena’s doll into a cellar and Elena throws Lila’s into the cellar as well in retaliation. The dolls are irretrievable, nowhere to be found. Their friendship progresses from adolescence to marriage and children through, in this novel, middle-age. In this fourth book, Elena and Lila are closer and also further away from each other than ever. Lila sometimes disparages Elena, the famous writer, and the way she raises her children. Elena is often bitter toward her friend. Upon returning to the neighborhood in the fourth book, Elena realizes that she doesn’t quite fit in there anymore. There is a distance between her and her childhood companions which she cannot break through.
Social class is a difficult thing to express in words. In America, we like to pretend it doesn’t exist and that we all, from the one percent down, are one homogeneous people in a land where it is possible to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. There comes a point near the end of The Story of the Lost Child where Elena, believing that Lila is at work writing something, thinks that Lila is uneducated, that Elena wants to take the work from Lila and rearrange it into the form that Lila, lacking in privilege, cannot. When she thinks about it more, she realizes how brilliant Lila is, that Lila created something that would make all of Elena’s books insignificant in comparison. But there was still that awful and condescending initial reaction, influenced by the world Elena now inhabits, that Lila was lacking in social status and would need help to fix her work, that Elena would need to elevate it in order to make it worth reading. In fact, the entire series is about Elena’s obsessive need to preserve Lila, to make her story permanent, when all Lila wants to do is disappear.
The reader must ask herself the question of who is telling the story and why and what biases they are inflicting on that story. Elena is telling us what Lila does, but we know Lila only through Elena’s words and perspective. So much of the story is Lila’s, but she never contributes her own voice. There is instead an indictment of what makes a work of literature readable, in the prevalence of a snobbish belief that only those with a certain level of education are worthy of making art, that only those with a so-called relatable story are worthy of being widely read. Elena wants her work to be read for generations and worries that, if her books are not important, then the only point of her entire life’s journey would be to climb to another social class. And in her quest for that fame she exploits Lila’s story when Lila does not want it to be told.
When Elena looks at her children, she sees in them the effortless privilege she never had. They were raised in better circumstances, with a well-known family name and all of the confidence that arises from that. Her children will never know what it is like to be ignored because of where they came from. It is interesting that Elena’s children, whom she perceives in this way, are not the lost child named in the title. The Story of the Lost Child implies that it is more Lila’s story than Elena’s, but we get surprisingly little of what Lila is thinking and doing in this book, mostly hypotheses about what Elena assumes Lila is suffering.
This is a series about women and friendship, of course, but it is also a story that attempts to dig into the structure of our societies and to tell the story of someone who is capable, because of her place in society, of disappearing. Lila is not recognizable the way Elena is. She is not famous. She is not educated. When she finally disappears, no one seems to remember her. Elena tries to tell the story of her brilliant friend in spite of Lila’s resistance, and it is because of this that we never really get Lila’s story. We simply get Elena’s interpretation of it. I loved this series. Please do yourselves a favor and read it, too.