Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda Book Reviews: The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante

Time on to-read list: Less than a month

Reason for not reading: I ordered it the day it came out. I only didn’t read it when my eyes shut in protest.

Reason for picking up: Conclusion of my obsession brought on by my late coming-to-the-party with My Brilliant Friend this summer.

Verdict: Oh my god. Get thee to a bookstore, go!

A preface note: This technically shouldn’t be a ShouldaCouldaWoulda book. It’s been out less than a month. I know. But as it is the conclusion of a series that is pretty much the epitome of a thing I Shoulda got addicted to when it came out and totally passed on for shinier objects, I feel that it is grandfathered in under the “and see what I would have missed” clause.

Also, I said so.

So here it is:

I’ve been writing for too long, and I’m tired; it’s more and more difficult to keep the thread of the story taut within the chaos of the years, of events large and small, of moods…What to do then? Admit yet again that she is right? Accept that to be adult is to disappear, is to learn to hide to the point of vanishing?

It’s been a few weeks, but I’m finally able to deal with this. This is the last novel in Elena Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan series. We’ve followed Lila and Elena from their barefoot girlhood in the tattered, broken courtyards of 1950s Naples to the period of dolce vita, that was only ever dolce for a select few (these girls only glimpsed its crumbs and its outskirts and found it terrifying), to the late 1960s and 1970s as they matured into wives and mothers and workers amidst gangs and class warfare and quasi-intellectual circles, socialist and violent communist politics and the awakening of feminism. They’ve made it to the 1980s now, carrying pieces of all of these things with them, jumbled up inside their heads and poking out at odd angles- as tends to happen when you’re carrying a suitcase with far too much inside that you haven’t quite figured out how to empty yet. “Made it” is really the key word here- as perhaps is the case with most people who make it to old age with any honesty and consciousness of what they’ve done. This book feels like the last gasp of someone who really wants to give up and say the hell with it- but can see the top of the mountain- and almost wishes she couldn’t, almost wishes that she had some excuse to sit down forever.

Elena and Lila are no longer girls in any sense of the word- they have lived, what would have been even just a few decades earlier, probably the better part of their lives. But that doesn’t mean anything real has changed, not really. Elena and Lila, in this novel, find themselves quite literally back where they started- back in that courtyard, still tied to each other more than anyone else. They still run and yell and hide on the stairways- the same stairways where they hid from the mysterious, supposedly monstrous Don Achille are the same stairways where they now hide from their husbands, ex-husbands, ex-lovers, brothers, fathers, mothers, children- and, most heartbreakingly, from each other. They are the monsters that sit at the end of the stairs now. This final chapter is the kind of thing that makes some people throw the book against the wall and go, “what was that all for, then?”… and makes some others hang their heads in recognition… or in fear.

There’s so much to talk about here, but for me, I can only talk about it by dealing with the main relationships of the novel, which is the reason they exist at all. I’ve said before that the class-based insecurity and despair of these novels breaks my heart, and this was the final throwing up of the hands, the final ironic laugh. This is the story of how the cycle of poverty wins, nearly every time, even with those who spend their whole lives trying to escape it. Usually not with a bang, but with a thousand small, seemingly reasonable compromises, a million little cuts, a hundred “Well, why don’t you just….?”, a veritable boatload of, “Well, why does it matter so much anyway? Who do you think you are?”-s. It’s no coincidence that Elena’s mother, who powerfully haunted the background of the first novel and was a major motor of Elena’s drive to escape (no less powerful, in her way, than Lila, though often much less acknowledged) flings herself to the forefront of this novel- she joins with everyone else who can’t understand how, having won the lottery of breaking the cycle, Elena would allow herself to prove its inevitability all over again. She is that controversial mother we all watched after the Ferguson riots, the one who beat her child publicly after discovering him participating, shared by some in a startlingly, and then less startlingly positive way.

Elena is brought down, and punished, and berated, and endlessly shamed for the crime of being successful enough to forget that she is not allowed to be human in the way that people who are born to the sort of status she has earned are human:

And yet in my memory that place-name, Montpellier, has for many reasons remained a symbol of escape. I had been out of Italy once, in Paris, with Franco, and I had felt exhilarated by my own audacity. But then it seemed to me that my world was and would forever remain the neighborhood in Naples, while the rest was like a brief outing in whose special climate I could imagine myself but never in fact be. Montpellier, on the other hand, although it was far less exciting than Paris, gave me the impression hat my boundaries had burst and I was expanding…It was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute.

Well how dare she, that uppity hussy. She forgot that she is not just a status-earning, status-protecting machine whose job is to be a repository of that status until she can pass it on to her children who are born to it, and therefore will never know anything else. The intellectual freedom, the grace and elegance, the ability to feel free, was once something that she genuinely craved and yearned towards- and is now the new set of chains she has made for herself once she discovers that that, like everything else, will not save her. Her mother is there to question her to knock down every self-actualizing decision she makes- something that is not a part of her universe, something she has never been able to afford and something it enrages her that her daughter thinks she can afford. It is a harsh, but deeply understandable picture of a love between a mother and daughter who have never quite understood each other, and who have, actually, been each other’s greatest fear in many ways.

What’s interesting is that other than one or two major through lines (and yes, we’ll get to the other one we know is coming in a minute), this was a rather disjointed work. It covers more time than all the other books put together- it contains the last nails in the coffin, the reasons that this had to be written to begin with, and so had to be told. But it reads , often, like a set of impressions from here and there that Elena finds so much harder to recall than the stories she tells from when she was nine until her mid thirties. I was surprised, after the immersive nature of the first volumes, how easily I slipped in and out of this one, largely due to this device- I am used to following Elena around and evidence of her older life has crept in, the closer she got to it. It is clear that she is older now, someone who has been a writer, a journalist, an editor, a manager, a mother, and that therefore it is hard to simply live in a genuine way without watching yourself and the events of your life with one of those hats on. Especially when she is purely talking about herself, especially after the mother of he she deals with herself with an irritable flick of the wrist.

It takes Lila to get her going again. Where is there friendship now? Lila has come up on the circle of fortune, at least in the first part of the book. She finally occupies the place that Elena has always seen her occupying- which read like a clear rebuke to the idea that Lila never needed Elena the way that Elena seemed to need, and be obsessed with her. What’s fascinating about this part of the friendship is that while Elena will never think Lila is less important, or less powerful in any way, by this point in her life she is able to see vulnerabilities in her that would never have occurred to her younger self (think back to the first and second book when we can see so many moments when Lila is scared, confused and vulnerable but Elena has no idea- that time they’re sexually harassed on the street, when she marries the former ganglord’s son to avoid having to marry the children of the current ganglord, that time Elena brings Lila-poor and separated and working at a sausage factory-her childhood story, full of hope that this will reignite the Lila she knew and Lila throws it on the fire). Elena, on several occasions, is finally put in positions where she has to deal with a Lila she cannot look up to, a Lila whose weakness scares her, saddens her, and frightens her. It is something that has been hinted at before, in the narrative third person, but not something we’ve ever seen. In the midst of an earthquake that they both survive, pregnant together, Lila tells her what its like living inside of her head where everything has dissolving boundaries:

An object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was absolutely not like that – and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped.

Elena has lived her whole life bumping up against the rules and finding them more solid than ever. The end of her life seems like one long confirmation that she has been breaking rules and that she should be punished for it- Lila has always lived understanding that everything is a construct and can easily become something else. She is scared of the impermanence of that, had accordingly, has hunkered down more and more tightly in the muck and mire of their Naples neighborhood, surrounding herself with all the rules and chains and barriers she can find- and still can’t seem to help but break the rules every day. Elena sees the place as a nightmare of inevitability, Lila as a bastion of stability that will keep her head screwed on straight- something that she unfortunately feels necessary to teach herself, being born where and when she was born. In this book, in their late “maturity”, then, both their childhoods finally end. Elena’s, when she sees Lila’s inner struggles for the first time. Lila’s, after Elena has discovered this and then is able to see that Lila’s innocence is still intact, her faith in Elena and their girlhood unbroken. Elena finds herself in the painful position of having to end that innocence, and, it seems, the basis of the friendship that has sustained her and powered so many of her choices for more than thirty or forty years. The main event of the novel, for which it is named, ends up feeling like an emotional afterthought, something inevitable that proves the final end of the innocence that this book details.

What does this say, in the end, about friendship? It would be tempting to think that it seems to leave us in despair and darkness, showing us what not letting go can lead us to, the damage that retaining your girlhood, however subliminally, will wreak on your brain.

But that would be to forget the frame- to forget the woman we were introduced to in the first few pages of My Brilliant Friend who was told about how Lila disappeared and who seemed so tired, almost irritated, to be interrupted- and who then sat down and wrote for what must have been days, weeks, months, everything about her that she’ll never forget. Who still, at the end, seems to be trying to fulfill Lila’s faith in her, the faith that she broke, that she no doubt blames for what happened to her in some sense- and use her writing as a kind of black magic to conjure her up again… with just the sort of power that she and Lila always imagined that words had.

So perhaps they didn’t destroy each other in the end. Perhaps it is, after all, a story about how friends preserve the best of us, the things that are the most precious and real, even when we quite literally disappear on them. Friends freeze us in time and allow us to time-travel, and make us part of themselves. Now, as we’ve seen, we know that this isn’t always a positive effect- but it is, in the most lasting of friendships, forever. It is that rock that Lila always sought and couldn’t believe existed. We build ourselves out of our friends at the times when we are the most malleable and they can never be removed- whether it is them or our illusion of them- they’re not going anywhere. Lila and Elena, more than anyone else in their lives, dreamed each other into being. I skipped a part in that quote that I put up at the beginning, a part where Elena pauses to talk to herself while she is writing, re-setting and justifying her approach to her story:

I’ve been writing for too long, and I’m tired; it’s more and more difficult to keep the thread of the story taut within the chaos of the years, of events large and small, of moods. So either I tend to pass over my own affairs to recapture Lila and all the complications she brings with her or, worse, I let myself by carried away by the events of my life, only because it’s easier to write them. But I have to avoid this choice. I mustn’t take the first path, on which, if I set myself aside- I would end up finding ever fewer traces of Lila- since the very nature of our relationship dictate that I can reach her only by passing through myself.

But I shouldn’t take the second, either. That, in fact, I speak of my experience in increasingly greater detail is just what she would certainly favor. Come on- she would say- tell us what turn your life took, who cares about mine, admit that it doesn’t even interest you. And she would conclude: I’m a scribble on a scribble, completely unsuitable for one of your books; forget it, Lenu, one doesn’t tell the story of an erasure. What to do then? Admit yet again that she is right? Accept that to be adult is to disappear, is to learn to hide to the point of vanishing? Admit that, as the years pass, the less I know of Lila?

This whole book says NO as loudly as possible, it says no like a child who is denying the reality of the no while realizing sooner or later that she will need to confront it, realizing that it is there and angry about it, deflecting that anger onto everything around her, and it is only admitted at the very last.

I won’t reveal what Ferrante decides the end of Lila and Elena’s story is (if it is an end), but I will say that I believe that she agrees with me that whatever these women did to each other over the years, she doesn’t believe they destroyed each other. They made each other, for better or worse. And that- picture me pointing to all four books in succession- is what friendship is.

Don’t you agree?