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



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.