The fourth and final volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series arrives freighted with expectation. The decades-long rivalrous friendship of two women from the slums of postwar Naples – Raffaella ‘Lila’ Cerullo and Elena Greco – has, by means of its eviscerating neorealism, gripped the reading public, not least because of Ferrante’s continued wish to remain pseudonymous and unknown. Lila and Elena’s relationship, which from childhood has been a near-metaphysical battle of wills, is now, at the beginning of The Story of the Lost Child, in stasis. It is 1976. At the close of the previous novel, narrator Elena, a university-educated writer living in Florence with her husband, Pietro, who is a professor, and two daughters, abandons this seemingly becalmed existence for a tumultuous affair – and ultimately a return to her home city – with Nino Sarratore, a former lover of Lila from their Naples ghetto. Lila, meanwhile has remained at the heart of what is pointedly referred to as ‘the neighbourhood’, in a low-status job, living with the son from her violent early marriage and Enzo, her new partner.
Ferrante traces Elena and Lila’s progress through late 20th-century Italian society with only fleeting reference to external events – the murder of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, the emergence of AIDS, the devastating earthquake that hit southern Italy in November 1980, the cataclysm of 9/11. Ferrante uses the earthquake in particular as a dramatic device: Lila and Elena, both unexpectedly pregnant in their late thirties, are