The four Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante — the first, “My Brilliant Friend,” translated into English in 2012 — have always had a lot to do with Ferrante’s home town of Naples. (That this is the place of her birth is one of the few facts we know about this mysterious novelist, who writes under a pseudonym.) Even as I began Lina’s and Lenù’s story, reading in Italian, I recognized their part of town. My father is from Naples, I’ve lived there on and off for years, and I admire how much Ferrante conveys about the place — how, for example, degraded spaces can provide familiarity and even comfort.
Naples leaves an ineradicable stamp on Lina and Lenù, the lifelong girlfriends who unify and propel this series. But with her new novel, “The Story of the Lost Child,” Ferrante has written what I’d call a “city book,” a knowing and complex tale that encompasses an entire metropolis. The breadth of vision makes this final installment feel like the essential volume.
The principal story in “Lost Child” strips away the many layers between a seeming adult and the actual “end of her childhood.” That phrase is used in reference to Lila, but it applies equally to Lenù, the narrator of all four novels. As this one opens, Lenù is 32, enjoying both esteem as a novelist and a sinecure in the prosperous, law-abiding Italian north. She appears beyond the clutches of her former neighborhood — though she can’t help brooding: “A woman without love for her origins is lost.”
As for those origins, in this novel Lenù’s past emerges only as it has bearing on her present — when it informs a gesture of love or flinch of pain. “The Story of the Lost Child” takes the woman into her 60s, yet it demands no knowledge of the previous three volumes (and includes a useful character list). Readers who’ve lived long enough, even if they’ve never heard of Naples, will nod in rueful sympathy as someone who seems on top of the world risks everything for an old flame.
Lenù’s lover, Nino, shares her past, and her “chaotic rebellion” against it. Yet the man’s rise through academics and politics proves rife with dirty deals. His career shows Lenù a grotesque mirror image for her own attempt to transcend — an attempt shared by Lila, though she stays at home. The women agree, “Let’s change the neighborhood,” and each makes the effort, contending with old Mafiosi, new babies (one provides the novel’s title) and a whole “order of the world” slowly “dissolving.”
In Italy, that dissolution has to do with the politics of the 1960s and ’70s, and translator Ann Goldstein captures the way this author can “transform small private events into public reflection.” The psychological damage of Lila’s cantankerousness, in one spectacular case, reveals itself during a Naples earthquake; the personal becomes not just political, but seismic.
So too, for all of Nino’s peccadilloes, he’s no cartoon Berlusconi. His girlfriend tends to downbeat introspection: “In what disorder we lived, how many fragments of ourselves were scattered, as if to live were to explode into splinters.” Such aphorisms turn up throughout Ferrante’s brief chapters, and while they’re not always so glum — and the closing has its notes of triumph — they keep us shuttered in Lenù’s febrile mind. Thus, Nino brings a breath of fresh air, so charming he can win over the very child he’s neglected. Nor is he the only man handled with sensitivity. “Lost Child” also deciphers two personalities poles apart, a thug and a transvestite, portrayals all the more remarkable in a novel so profoundly about women.
Lenù and Lila learn to work around their menfolk, mastering destructive impulses, “this furious other I.” Often, they’re wrung out between past and future, as Lenù, at one point, contends with a mother dying of cancer and a baby girl wailing for milk. But such wrenching and wailing resides in the heart of Naples — the home of the Sirens. Those she-monsters sang across treacherous seas, as these novels speak to a troubled century, and both express the Eternal Feminine:
“What was the body of a woman: I had nourished my daughter in the womb, now . . . she was nourished by my breast. I thought, there was a moment when I, too, had been in my mother’s womb, had sucked at her breast.”
John Domini’s latest book is “The Sea-God’s Herb,” and he has a book of stories coming in 2016.
By Elena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa. 473 pp. Paperback, $18