By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Elena Ferrante
Narrated by: Hilliary Huber
Mark Twain said, “Write what you know” but fails to warn of its consequence. Elena Ferrante completes Twain’s aphorism in “The Story of the Lost Child”. The consequence of “writing what you know” is to reveal who you are and what you think of your family, friends, lovers, and acquaintances. Often, that reveal is not flattering. To “write what you know” can be psychologically, morally, and financially damaging.
“The Story of the Lost Child” is the fourth book in Ferrante’s series about two poor women who achieve economic and social independence in Italy during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Ferrante takes the story through modern-day Italy and the events of life that change the two main characters that are growing old.
Without doubt, the greatest heroine of Ferrante’s novels is Lila; a street educated woman with immense energy, intelligence, and a superior perception of reality. Lila is the sun around which others, both men and women, revolve around.
Through will and intelligence, Lila grasps the value of computers in the sixties and builds a company around its potential. The second heroine, Elena Greco, is a college educated fiction writer. Though both women are equally successful in achieving independence, Elena is a recorder, more than actor, in life.
Elena achieves independence through reaction. Lila makes things happen. Elena lets things happen. Lila chooses to stay in her neighborhood, and fights local Italian corruption that impedes her business. Elena writes about people in the neighborhood but leaves its environment; only to return to record rather than confront her community’s dysfunction.
As is evident to anyone who lives long enough, there are turning points in life. Ferrante reveals those turning points in Elena and Lila’s lives. Though Ferrante suggests more women than men read her books (which may be true), her characters’ journeys and life experience resonate with all human beings.
Men and women begat children that parents raise with varying degrees of attention. Children’s lives happen in an environment over which they have no control but they are always watching; always listening.
What makes Ferrante’s stories universal is the truth of her observations. Both men and women are capable of promiscuity. Both husbands and wives neglect their children; sometimes because of work or pleasure, and others because of overweening self-interest. Children live life in the moment and absorb all that they see and feel through a prism of parental genetics. “The Story of the Lost Child” embarrassingly and truthfully reveals how human beings are foolishly misled by self-interest, and ephemeral pleasures.
Elena is married but falls in love with a former lover of Lila’s. He is a married man with children but says he will leave his wife for Elena. Elena, after divorcing her husband, finds her lover is a philandering liar. Elena is so consumed by love she agrees to an absurd two family relationship; i.e. allowing her lover to continue his marriage and their affair. Lila had been involved with this guy and warns Elena of his character, but Elena chooses to ignore her friend’s warning until she finds him “stooping” the maid in their apartment bathroom. Surprisingly, Elena accepts her lover’s sexual peccadillo, in part because of pregnancy. She continues the affair until it becomes clear that she is merely one among many women in her lover’s sexual network.
Elena’s decision to leave her lover is complicated by pregnancy. Her lover remains a part of her life because of the baby. The strength to leave her lover is bolstered by Lila’s counsel and support. Elena’s and Lila’s friendship enters a phase of reconciliation after many breaks between childhood and adulthood. They become allies in combating the corruption of their local community.
An underlying theme in Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan Novel is the impact of parental life on children. Children grow into their own lives but they are both genetically and environmentally affected by their parents. Human beings are by nature self-absorbed. It is not that when adults become parents, they lose their lives, their own experiences, their own desires. Decent parents love their children but a parent’s love is within a context of living a life.
The title of this fourth novel is “The Story of the Lost Child” because Lila loses her daughter. That loss is because of parental self-absorption. Both Lila and Elena are focused on getting ahead in life. Each’s self-absorption exhibits in different ways but both have an impact on their children’s lives.
Lila is focused on building a computer company and fighting corruption in her neighborhood. Elena’s is intent on writing books, and living a life that feeds her literary imagination. Both are self-absorbed.
Lila’s and Elena’s self-absorption is not criminal neglect. Both love their children and care for them in each other’s absence. However, every parent loses their child. There is an obvious difference in their losses. The loss is physical in Lila’s case because her youngest child is gone before adulthood. It is figurative in Elena’s case because her children have become adults.
Elena Ferrante, whoever she is, has written a story that lionizes women in some ways but humanizes and degrades them in others. Of course, all human beings are flawed; that is why “writing what you know” has consequences.