MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 331 pp., $17 paper.
THE STORY OF A NEW NAME, by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 471 pp., $18 paper.
THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 400 pp., $18 paper.
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD, by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 480 pp., $18 paper.
While the literary in-crowd worldwide has been celebrating Italian novelist Elena Ferrante for years now, latecomers to the party may be the lucky ones. With the publication this month of "The Story of the Lost Child," the fourth and final volume of her Neapolitan series, it is now possible to read the whole thing at once, as was the author's intention: she has described the work as a single novel.
Reading the series combines the guilty pleasure of binge-watching all the seasons of a great TV show with the intellectual stimulation of literary fiction. Ferrante's characters and their unpredictable fates become as real as the people in one's own life, occupying an alternate reality where the darker possibilities of friendship, motherhood, sexual politics and creative endeavor are revealed with relentless and clear-eyed specificity.
The focus of the story is the long, complicated relationship of two Neapolitan women: Elena Greco and her "brilliant friend" Raffaella Cerullo, called Lila. Elena is the narrator, and she begins the story on the occasion of Lila's intentional disappearance at the age of 66, an act threatened decades earlier, intended to "eliminate the entire life that she had left behind." In a fury, Elena, now an internationally known author, turns on the computer to thwart her, recording every detail of the 60-plus years of their lives.
The story begins in the late 1950s in a poor, violent neighborhood of Naples. "Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad," Elena begins. She also introduces members of nine key families whose stories unfold alongside hers and Lila's; helpfully, an index of characters appears at the front of each volume.
Elena's headlong style of narration alternately races through and slows to analyze the events that follow: studying and competing at school, baby-sitting at the beach, going off to college, having children early and late, moving house, finding work, changing partners, parenting teenagers and finally, in this fourth novel, growing old.
As in real life, the future is predictable only up to a point; what was once beloved becomes anathema; once familiar, later alien. When tragedy barrels into the final novel, with craziness and cruelty in its wake, Lila comments, "Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything at the end consoles you."
Ferrante writes anything but that kind of novel. Here the sometimes bizarre interaction of human will and fate is evoked perfectly. A girlhood crush on a bright, elusive boy named Nino Sarratore controls decades of the two friends' lives, including back-and-forth betrayals and out-of-wedlock children. At one point in the fourth novel, Elena describes the effect of this man on her behavior: "At the idea of hurting him and of no longer seeing him I withered painfully, the free and educated woman lost her petals, separated from the woman-mother, and the woman-mother was disconnected from the woman-lover, and the woman-lover from the furious whore, and we all seemed on the point of flying off in different directions." But even this pole star loses its gravitational pull over time, and it is by coincidence (but not without implications) that Nino is on the scene when the disaster that shapes "The Story of The Lost Child" occurs.
In the years that follow, Nino suffers his own unexpected downfall and becomes ever more tangential to Elena's story. This sort of twisting trajectory marks everything: Elena's literary career, Italian politics and activism, the fate of a crime family, and most of all the friendship itself, which goes through every imaginable phase of passionate identification, resentment, disconnection, love, disdain and outright meanness over the years.
Though the Neapolitan novels would be compelling without a fascinating backstory, there is one. "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and the person behind it has absolutely resisted publicity. For a while, there was even a rumor she might be a man. (No way.) Even her American translator, Ann Goldstein, does not know who she is. The author has explained that she chooses anonymity to keep the focus on the work rather than the writer. But with work this unusual and brilliant, there is no way to stop us from focusing on so prodigiously gifted a storyteller.