The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

 

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I began talking about The Story of The Lost Child with my  mother on one of our early morning phone conversations while I was driving to work because I couldn’t wait to talk with her about it until we were face to face. “Mother,” I said, “Elena wants it all! She wants to be a successful writer, and have her married lover, and be a good mother, and she doesn’t even know that’s impossible!” I was fuming inside over Lena’s ignorance.

“That’s why,” my mother replied, “it’s the perfect 21st century novel.”

The Neapolitan novels are so very powerful, and have been written about so voraciously, that they need little reflection from me. But I will explore my thoughts as a member of the shadow jury, and as a reader, for they are surely some of the most important works to have been published this decade.

They begin with My Brilliant Friend and end with The Story of The Lost Child, which is why for me, this cannot be a stand alone novel. Indeed the novel ends in recounting an event with which the first book begins; we come full circle through all four of the novels. So, it’s interesting that it earned a place on the Man Booker International Prize long list when surely some of its power is lost if the reader is coming to it without having read the prior three. Yet, how can the writing of Elena Ferrante not be recognized with the other important writers of our time?

The Story of The Lost Child continues the exploration of the friendship between Elena Greco (Lena) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), from when they are little girls until they are old women.

I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.

As I write the word “friendship” I feel it must be taken loosely, for surely these two women are almost in a combative relationship. I had been convinced that it was Lila who was the manipulative one, the conniving, charismatic, brilliant friend who got everything she ever wanted. But then I see in this last novel how Lena has published the tragedy of Lila’s girl being lost, something she promised Lila never to do. They seem to violate each other’s wishes for their own personal interests, they seem to compete at who is the most beautiful, the most successful, the most dearly loved. They fall in love with the same man, one who could commit to neither.

“Look at me,” she (Lila) whispered. “I know I’m mean to tell you these things, but he is much worse than I am. He has the worst kind of meanness, that of superficiality.”

They even become pregnant with their two little girls almost simultaneously. As if the comparisons they make to each other are not enough, their competition is carried out further in the lives of these two daughters.

The novel also shows us the violence of Naples, Italy, the passion of relationships, the turmoil of our lives even if we live no where near Italy ourselves. In reading its pages I find a tremendous connection to my own life, which perhaps other readers do as well, for who hasn’t experienced a tumultuous friendship? A disastrous love? A parent/child relationship with enormous potholes?

It took me a long time to read The Story of The Lost Child. There was much to think about, much to absorb, much to question and ponder. I love it. I love it for the questions it raises, unanswerable questions, which make the best books great as we puzzle through the enigmas for ourselves.

For thus the novel ends:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.

Find thoughts from Tony and Clare, fellow shadow jury members who have also reviewed this book.

 

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27 comments

  1. Sounds like an insightful and piercing novel. Although I must admit, the plot gist doesn’t draw me in. I’ll wait for your other reviews of the Man Booker International nominees to see if there’s one novel (or two) that induces severe booklust in me.

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    1. Oh dear, perhaps it’s my review which dissuades you. Truly, it’s a very powerful novel, which reads as if it’s real; so real that the characters, their lives, become as familiar as one’s own neighborhood. Or, inner circle.

      I must admit, though, to having a strong penchant for all things Italian.

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      1. Oh no, it certainly has nothing to do with your review. I got the impression that The Story of the Lost Child is a really insightful read thanks to your review. I’m simply not enchanted by the plot.

        Like I said, you r

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    1. Can’t you see how it’s really one book broken into four parts? I’m not sure how I feel about it on the Booker long list, because it doesn’t stand alone. Yet, how can it not be recognized for outstanding writing? Something of a conundrum. But, I’m glad you liked it, too. I’m reading that “even men” like it, which says something about its appeal as well.

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  2. I’ve only read the first two books, so I’ve only skimmed the last part of your post and will come back to it! My sister is insisting that the author of these books is a man, and I have to admit I am dismayed by that idea. She borrowed my copy of My Brilliant Friend but I don’t think she likes it enough to read it.

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    1. I have heard speculation that Elena Ferrante is a man as well, but I highly doubt it. The point of view seems so very female to me with the intense emotion, the exploration of the woman’s role in life as wife, mother, struggling professional.

      I read the first two books, but not the third. However, I feel I had adequate knowledge and background to carry on to the fourth without much trouble. I don’t see how anyone could pick up the fourth alone, though, and grasp all Ferrante has to say.

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      1. I’m eager to get to the third, with that reassurance! I wasn’t so sure, but had already finished the second before I had even heard that Elena Ferrante was the pen name of an unknown author, so I’ll read the third with fresh eyes. If we can’t say that a man can write convincingly from a woman’s perspective, though, wouldn’t we have to say a woman can’t write convincingly from a man’s perspective and we don’t want to say that, do we? Woo boy, I’m getting myself into deep water here, or at least hot water…
        😉

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        1. Ah, you have a very good point about women writing from a man’s perspective…I guess I’m not prepared to say that one sex can’t write well about another. That would be a sticky wicket, wouldn’t it?! But, this truly seems like a woman’s hand writing about women’s lives to me.

          And, it always bugs me (personal point of view) when a man writes about a woman as if he has an omniscient eye. The only ones I know who have done it fairly successfully are Flaubert with Emma Bovary and Tolstoy with Anna Karenina. No one else seems to have created a character that rings completely true for me. Another topic for another day. 🙂

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  3. This is a beautiful post, Meredith. Thank you. I never knew that one should read the first three books to get to this. I haven’t read Ferrante at all. I am glad that some great books are waiting for me.

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  4. Having read the whole series it’s hard to tell objectively if The Story of the Lost Child works as a stand-alone novel – I suspect it probably doesn’t, but I’m still really thrilled that Ferrante has finally been recognised by a major literary prize.

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    1. I agree; it’s wonderful that she has been nominated for this prize! I think her writing is substantial enough to be a very serious contender. (But, I don’t think this works as a stand alone novel.)

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  5. I cannot wait to read this one! It’s 4 books, which is why I am somewhat hesitant to start on this journey, but oh boy, the books have sounded so good every time someone talks about them.

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    1. I was not entranced the first time I picked up the first one, in fact, it took me at least two times to get into the novels. But, once I did I was hooked. I think you will enjoy them, Athira, not only for the story but for the writing.

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  6. I’m sure I read somewhere that Ferrante wanted to publish it as one book – or certainly saw it as one continuous volume. I don’t see how it can be excluded as there is no separate prize for series, but I agree it has to be judged as a whole. Presumably the judges would not have chosen it without having read the other books.

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    1. Yes, I read that she wanted it to be one continuous novel, or at least read as such, but it was too long. I don’t think it should be excluded for being four novels, but it really does the reader a disservice to only pick up the last one, which I fear may happen should it win the Man Booker International Prize. Well, fear isn’t the right word. But, I think we agree that it has to be judged as a whole.

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  7. A little like you, I felt my sympathies shifting as I worked my way through this series of novels. The more I read, the more I identified with Lila. It’s a tremendous series, and I really hope The Lost Child makes it to the shortlist. Funnily enough, I’ll be rereading My Brilliant Friend next month as it’s my book group’s choice for April. It’ll be interesting to see whether I gain even more from a second reading. 🙂

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    1. I’m somehow relieved I’m not the only one who lost some affection for Elena. She was in many ways a victim of the friendship, yes, but not innocent herself. None of us are.

      It would be interesting to read them again. I have them on my kindle, but I would like a paper copy of the set because they are surely worth a reread, worth keeping on one’s shelf. I’ll be looking at your blog to see if your thoughts change the second time around.

      p.s. I really miss you on the Booker International shadow panel. xo

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      1. I think you would find volume three very interesting (once you’re done with the MBIP list, of course!). It’s not the strongest book in the series but still worth reading to track the developments in Elena’s character – we see quite a different side to her in that third novel.

        Yes, I miss chatting to you about these books too, but my reading has taken a turn in a slightly different direction of late. I’ve been trying to work my way through some of the modern classics that have been sitting on the shelves for several years, returning to favourite authors and trying a few new ones as well. All very rewarding so far!

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  8. My mother didn’t care for the first in this series, but it’s been on my TBR list for several months, and so many of my blogger friends have raved about it, so I will stick to my plan and give it a read when I can devote some uninterrupted time to the story. I’d love to read all four books, one after the other, so I may just wait until that time presents itself to me. I will be sure to chat with you about the books, if you’ll be so kind to remind me. 🙂

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