The Most Important Parts Of Neapolitan Novels 1-3, Briefly Explained, To Get You Ready For ’The Story Of The Lost Child'
As September nears, for some it means the start of autumn, or heading back to college, or one last hurrah for summer on Labor Day. For the rest of us, it means the long-awaited arrival of Elena Ferrante's fourth and final book of the Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child.
Lush and gripping, Ferrante's novels have captivated audiences around the world, from her native Italy to the United States. Although her novels are deeply rooted in Naples, Italy, the experiences she writes of — fraught but strong friendships between women; marriage and motherhood; and unfortunately, sexual violence — are universal.
When compared to other book series, such as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, we really haven't been waiting too long for the next installments of of Ferrante's novel to appear in stores, especially considering they're in translation. It's only been three years since the English translation of My Brilliant Friend arrived. But whether you've been a devoted reader since the beginning, or just recently raced through the series, a refresher may be needed, for even the most important points.
Although many plot points in each book could be considered the most important or critical, I'm shining a light on the stuff that's super-important as we go into Book 4. (And, of course, spoilers abound — but you wouldn't be reading this post if you hadn't zipped through the first three books already, am I right?)
BOOK 1: My Brilliant Friend
When Lila disappears at the start of My Brilliant Friend, Elena isn't entirely surprised. She notes early on, "It's been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I'm the only one who knows what she means." It only in the middle of the book that Elena explains what Lila has termed as "dissolving margins," when she feels that those she loves dissolve into the world around them. The feeling extends to herself at times, and while it is never diagnosed, her experience seems indicative of dissociating from her stressful and often violent surroundings.
My Brilliant Friend also sets the stage the competitive and difficult friendship between Elena and Lila. While Elena continues onto high school, Lila stays home with her father, working to innovate his shoe shop. Despite her lack of formal schooling, Lila's intelligence threatens Elena's self-esteem, and she fears that Lila's accomplishments — from designing a perfect pair of shoes to writing The Blue Fairy to marrying the wealthy Stefano Carracci — will always overshadow hers.
BOOK 2: The Story of a New Name
During a summer trip to Ischia, planned for Lila's health as a way of conceiving a child, Elena and Lila encounter the Sarratores, who left Naples earlier in My Brilliant Friend. Separately, they reunite with Nino Sarratore and his friend Bruno Soccavo, and with Pinuccia, Lila's future sister-in-law, they form a loosely tethered group. Elena has pined for her childhood friend Nino, but is crushed when he begins to spend time with Lila. Further loosening the ties on their already fraught friendship, Elena is devastated to find that Lila has begun an affair with Nino. This turn isn't difficult to foresee once we learn, early in the novel, that Lila's marriage to Stefano begins with him raping her.
Elena becomes an unwilling accomplice in helping Lila and Nino get away to consummate their affair, and on that night, she wanders to the beach at the Maronti, where she encounters Nino's father, Donato, who assaulted her in My Brilliant Friend. When he begins to prey on her with his excessive and flowery language, and then begins to kiss her, Elena reflects, "The entire time, I didn't once regret having accepted what was happening. I had no second thoughts and I was proud of myself." The scene is disturbing, especially when paralleled with Lila and Nino, and with its long shadow on Elena's life. It becomes a critical part of the novel she writes in college, which becomes her salvation from Naples, as she is able to further enter academic and political circles through her marriage to Pietro Airota and their move to Florence. But the night on the beach continues to haunt her. While she is finishing college, Elena finds out, second-hand, that Lila has taken her son Rino and runaway with Enzo Scanno, a childhood friend, to San Giovanni a Teduccio where Bruno Soccavo lives, she realizes that the "happy phase of that vacation had faded, while its unpleasant side had expanded." She recalls that night on the beach and despairs, while finding some pleasure in the fact that Lila and Nino's affair has since fallen apart.
BOOK 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
As Lila and Elena move forward into what could be termed second wave feminism, both experience radical changes, primarily by "living in sin." Rebelling against their conservative upbringings, both defy traditional family structures in their own ways. Their decisions reflect the changing times when the politics became more radical and dangerous, and the feminist movement became more outspoken and bold.
Lila lives with Enzo Scanno, her childhood friend and now business associate. After quitting the violent and hostile sausage factory owned by Bruno Soccavo, Nino's old friend, Lila throws herself into studying computers alongside Enzo, eventually working for the Solaras, a much-feared family in Naples.
Similarly, Elena — now the mother of two daughters — pushes the boundaries of her marriage to Pietro Airota, which has been tenuous from the start, by carrying on an affair with Nino, her childhood love and Lila's ex-lover. Overcome by the stress of motherhood and the desire to have the approval of Nino — something that Pietro has failed to give her book — she runs away with him at the close of the book.
While Elena seeks out friendship with other women surrounding her in Florence, she still finds herself drawn to Lila, even as she resists connecting with her at times; on the other hand, Lila seems to have discarded their childhood ties, at least symbolically in Elena's mind, when she throws the copy of The Blue Fairy in a fire pit. However, Lila remains in Naples, connected to the past, while Elena slowly acknowledges the hold Naples has on her.
Image: Meredith Turits/Bustle; Europa Edition