Elena Ferrante's rich, sprawling quartet that concludes with this new book, "The Story of the Lost Child," centers on two lifelong friends, Lenú (Elena Greco) and Lila (Raffaella Cerullo). The first volume begins with a classic murder mystery scene: Lenú receives a phone call in the night that her friend has disappeared. Lenú decides to write everything she can remember about her friend, and so becomes the narrator.
Fiction like this is not often written: the friendship of two girls becoming women in the context of their culture, a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Naples in postwar Italy, with all its superstitions, politics, corruption, sexism and violence. Of special note is Ferrante's detailed and dramatic descriptions of the struggle girls must make to advance in school.
Now the fourth book, "The Story of the Lost Child," finds the women in the 1970s, middle-aged workers and mothers, somewhat estranged. Lila, the defiant and creative one, who has become a computer whiz and entrepreneur over the years, lives with her husband in Naples. Lenú's cautious trajectory led her out of Naples to complete her education. In Florence, she publishes her writing but struggles with isolation, child care, work deadlines, marital difficulties. A love affair presents a solution and leads her back to Naples in 1979.
The two friends come together and help each other with their mutual concerns: child care, aging parents, work, reassessment of men and their childhood neighbors. They look after the children with loving joy and competition. As in the previous books, they are each other's alter ego, critic and sometimes confidante.
"Her approval gave me confidence," writes Lenú.
Lila, on the other hand, speaks of dissolving boundaries, scientific knowledge and snap judgments of people. Together, they plot and carry out an exposé of local corruption, among other adventures.
One ordinary Sunday afternoon, in the midst of a happy crowd, a child goes missing. People rush to search. "A rumor took hold that later prevailed. The child had left the sidewalk to chase a blue ball. But just at that moment a truck was passing."
The last hundred pages of the book reverberate with the story of the lost child, which connects to other losses in the community. The '60s leftist friend, still underground. Lila's brother, Gino, a heroin addict. Lenú's older children in the U.S. Alfonso, a transvestite, beaten to death by thugs. Lila's loss of hope for a revival for Naples. Lenú's loss of youthful energy.
Inevitably, as the author promised, the end is a return to the beginning. Lila is gone. Ferrante gives us a brilliant, ambivalent ending, open to interpretation. Yet the ending gives a magical benediction to the lifelong friendship of Lila and Lenú. The last sentence haunts me: "I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore."
Roseann Lloyd is a Twin Cities author. Her most recent book is "The Boy Who Slept Under the Stars: A Memoir in Poetry."
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD
By: Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 473 pages, $18.