I recently completed The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth (and final) book in what has become known as the purposely mysterious Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series. The books explore the decades long friendship between two Italian women who met as children in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Naples. My Brilliant Friend, first published in 2012, seemed to come from nowhere as it became a 2015 bestseller in, I suppose, anticipation of the publication later in the year of the fourth book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child. Between these two came 2013’s The Story of a New Name and 2014’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
With the exception of a few brief moments in the books during which Elena, the book’s narrator, addresses the reader about her current feelings regarding her old friend Lila, the books offer a chronologically linear progression of the pair’s more than fifty-year relationship. Seldom has a relationship between literary characters been more deeply explored than this one. Each book in the series comes in at around 400 pages, but the Neapolitan Series is easier to read than one might imagine. My Brilliant Friend, beginning as it does (after a brief word from the sixtyish Elena) when its two chief characters are preschoolers, is both charming and intriguing - and when it ends, some four hundred or so pages later, most readers will want to know more. And Elena Ferrante has a lot more to say about Elena, Lila, their working class families, their friends, their lovers, their children, and the lives the two little girls will live during the next six decades.
Bottom line, this is a fictional study of the kind of longtime friendship that can shape – for good or for bad - a person’s entire life. Even as children, Elena and Lila recognized in each other the best that their neighborhood had to offer. They were among the very brightest in their local school, they were often the most adventurous, and neither was much willing to put up with the foolishness of those around them. They simply could not imagine staying in the neighborhood forever, and they looked forward to the time when they could finally begin living their real lives.
It would not, however, be easy for either of them to make their escape from the neighborhood. Elena and Lila were, as it turns out, as much rivals as they were friends. At times, it can even be said that they were more rival than friend to each other. Their competitiveness drove each of them to achieve more than likely would have been possible if they had never met, but it may have been at too great a cost for them to enjoy what they achieved. Only they can answer that question.
Elena and Lila are two of the most memorable characters I have encountered in a long time, and their often-tragic relationship leaves the reader with a lot to ponder about life, fate, and trying to go home again after living in a bigger world.