Those Knockout Neapolitan Novels Part 4: The Story of the Lost Child

Finally, we have come to the end. We’ve made it through Book 1, culminating with Lila’s wedding to Stefano, Book 2, culminating with Nino showing up at Elena’s first public reading as a novelist, and Book 3, covering Elena’s marriage to Pietro and her life in Florence, her struggle to write as she becomes the mother of two daughters, and leaving Pietro for that long-running object of her affection, Nino Sarratore.

Book 4 begins with Elena describing how she and Lila aren’t friends from Oct 1976 to 1979, despite Lila’s efforts to insert herself into Elena’s life. She’s mad at Lila for saying that by leaving with Nino, she was doing harm to her daughters, who up to that point Lila had never seemed to care about.

At the conference Elena attends with Nino, she starts to get jealous of the flirtatious way he acts with another female scholar until she realizes that’s his way with all women; she also hears him talking on the phone to someone he swears isn’t his wife. When she gets back to Florence (after delaying with a side trip to Paris), Adele is with the children and Pietro is hiding somewhere. Elena goes to Naples to meet Nino and he tells her Lila’s called and wants to see them, so they meet with her; Elena’s new book of her story/essay about man inventing woman is her one thing to cling to. Lila drags her to the shoe shop in Piazza dei Martiri to see all their old friends, including Antonio, home with his family from Germany; everyone there more or less ignores Nino, with Antonio warning that Nino doesn’t respect her. Elena realizes that Alfonso, who’s grown his hair long, strongly resembles Lila.

Elena tours France for her new book. She almost misses Christmas with her family to meet Nino briefly in Rome, but then when she finally gets to Florence she finds out Pietro sent the kids to his parents. Pietro breaks his arm punching a wall when she tells him she wants to move with the girls to Naples, where Nino lives; she believes he is also ending things with his wife to be with her. Then Pietro tells her he’s told her mother what she’s done, and she’s about to arrive. She’s violently angry with Elena and at one point starts hitting her; Elena shoves her, accidentally knocking her down. Adele tries to encourage Elena to leave the kids with her. Nino confesses that when they were teenagers and Elena wrote the article about the conflict with her religion teacher, he threw the article away because he was jealous it was so good. When Elena goes to get the children in Genoa, she clashes with her in-laws over Nino, who has a womanizing reputation. She travels for work and sees Mariarosa, and when she comes back she asks the kids if they want to go with her or stay with their grandparents, and they choose the latter.

Her second book is a success, even though her editor confides that Adele tried to stop them from publishing it. Lila, who calls frequently, becomes more focused on the neighborhood as Elena travels more. Carmen wants Elena to use her connections to try to find out where Pasquale is. When Elena and Nino are traveling in Germany, they’re stopped and interrogated all night for being Italian. They travel a lot in the year and a half they’re together, and sometimes she gets political during her talks. She quarrels violently with Adele when she tells her she’s moving the girls to Naples.

Then Lila tells Elena she had Antonio follow Nino and that he never left his wife, and that his father-in-law just got him an important job. When Nino confirms this is true, she says she’s leaving him. She fights with Adele (calling her out for cheating on her husband, which Pietro told her about) until Adele kicks her out, and she goes with the girls to Mariarosa’s in Milan. Nino calls constantly, but still won’t leave his wife. Franco, who’s lived with Mariarosa since the beating where he lost his eye, takes care of the girls when Elena travels. Nino arrives to tell her his wife is seven months pregnant, greatly upsetting her. Then Franco kills himself, and Elena moves to an apartment Nino’s rented for her in Naples and becomes his lover again. When she visits her mother’s, her mother says if she’s not with Pietro next time she should never show up again. When she goes to see Elisa, who’s pregnant, she finds her sister much more aggressive, blaming Elena for their mother’s poor health. Elisa also insinuates that Lina is threatening Marcello in some way she better stop.

When Elena sees Lila, she suddenly feels guilty for trying to cut her out of her life and is impressed by what she’s done with the computer company she’s started, Basic Sight. Lila and Carmen confess Pasquale has showed up recently. Lila is an admired success in the neighborhood, especially after using the Solaras; Michele’s been acting crazy since his mother died and Marcello claims it’s Lila’s fault. Elena keeps her distance from Lila until she and Nino are going to the United States for two weeks and she can’t find anyone else to watch her daughters; Lila readily agrees. When she gets back, she’s pregnant—and so is Lila.

Elena gets over the last of her hostility toward Lila’s malicious side when Lila helps explain their domestic situation to her daughters as parallel to Lila’s own: married to one man whose last name their children have, but now having babies by different men they’re not married to. She finally tells Nino about the pregnancy and he’s pleased, though he doesn’t plan to tell his wife about it. He takes Elena to lunch with his parents, and Donato tries to take credit for sparking Elena’s interest in the written word. Elisa has Marcello’s baby and their mother is diagnosed with a serious illness that makes her more emotional and allows for an unprecedented intimacy between her and Elena. She regrets giving her other three kids to the Solaras and wants Elena to get them away from them by getting them jobs with Lila, whom she now admires and thinks capable of crushing the Solaras.

Elena’s pregnancy is easy, Lila’s hard; they go to doctor’s appointments together and are close, but Elena realizes while she confides everything to Lila, Lila is vague when she confides in turn. Elena continues to travel and cultivate her reputation, which is nonexistent when she returns to the neighborhood. Antonio now seems to work for Lila more than the Solaras, but Lila says she can’t take on Elena’s brothers, even though Alfonso also works for her now. She goes shopping with Lila and Alfonso and when he tries on a dress he looks just like her. Elena wants to ask Lila what she knows about Nino that she’s not letting on, but to segue into it asks about what she’s done to Michele, and Lila talks about how Marcello’s been bringing drugs into the neighborhood. As they’re talking, an earthquake hits, and Lila is more terrified than Elena at this loss of control. They take shelter in Lila’s car and Elena sees Marcello drive by with her sister and parents. Lila cries that boundaries are dissolving, the first time she’s used this phrase with Elena, and Lila tells her about how it happened on NYE 1958. Lila believes everything will be undone. Nino disappears with his family for days, reinforcing for the pregnant Elena that he doesn’t care about her. She gets sucked further into the drama of the neighborhood; Lila intimates if she’s going to interfere (i.e., confront Marcello about the drugs) then she has to go all in, not just go back up to her place on Via Tasso. Elena lies to her mother that Lila can take her brothers on.

Elena gives birth to a daughter whose delivery is especially easy and whom she names after her mother, with Nino’s surname. When Lila brings Elena’s mother up to Via Tasso to visit the baby, her mother starts dripping blood. After Nino and Lila take her to the hospital, Marcello and Elisa show up there and start fighting with them about transferring her to a clinic, which they eventually succeed in getting her to. Carmen and Alfonso are extremely grateful to Lila for helping them, and Alfonso says if he turns up murdered, it was Marcello. Lila helps out with her daughters a lot while Elena visits her mother at the clinic. Lila finally has a painful birth and the doctor accuses her of trying to keep the child in. With their babies near the same age they start spending even more time together. Elena’s mother tells her she is her favorite child before she dies.

Her editor asks for a meeting to talk about when her next book (which she’s been lying about the progress of) will be released, and she promises to deliver something soon. She lets Nino hire a woman to help out so she can write. Nino spends time with the children but doesn’t become attached to his daughter Imma. When his career improves after she’s born, Elena realizes that behind every one of his advances has been the help of a connected woman, and that he’s only interested in cultivating relations that will help himself. She also realizes he’s doing things that Pietro used to do that angered her.

Then she comes home one day and catches Nino having sex with Silvana, the older overweight woman they hired for help. She takes Imma and has to pick up the girls from school, then goes to Lila’s and tells her everything. Lila says she made a mistake and needs to leave Nino, and when Elena seems reticent, Lila confesses that Nino has been hitting on her, too. When Elena’s at home later, Antonio shows up, sent by Lila, and when he comforts her, she sleeps with him. She fights with Nino and doesn’t get any work done, and when her editor eventually gets hold of her she says the book is finished and sends him the manuscript from years ago inspired by Manuela Solara’s murder that Adele didn’t like. She assumes this will mean her career as a writer is over and is scared about what she’ll do for work once she finally manages to kick Nino out for good, but then the editor loves the book. 

Thinking it will help her finish the manuscript, Elena moves into an apartment directly above Lila in the old neighborhood. She starts to compare her daughter Imma to Lila’s daughter Tina, who’s more advanced and vivacious. Being in the neighborhood seems good for the Elsa’s and Dede’s confidence, since they consider themselves better than their classmates. Lila is worried about Tina, since Gennaro also showed early promise that came to naught, and when Elena says it’s because of the neighborhood, Lila says they should change the neighborhood. Elena realizes that people attribute enough power to Lila that she could do it. Marcello finally marries Elisa and appears reconciled with Michele, who seems to have recovered from his crazy period. Alfonso, whom Elena deduces had some kind of sexual relationship with Michele, starts acting increasingly erratic when that relationship is apparently over.

The publisher sends a photographer to promote the book, and ends up taking a picture of Elena with the more attractive Tina instead of Imma that’s published with the caption that Tina is Elena’s daughter. When the book comes out, the Solaras are furious because the articles surrounding it talk more about them and their criminal dealings than the actual book. Elena is scared at first, but then Lila convinces her it’s a good thing, that she’s more dangerous for them than they are for her.

The novel is successful and Elena has to travel a lot for it, leaving her daughters in Lila’s care. Then she finds out that Carmen is bringing a lawsuit against her for some of the book’s content. Lila tells her the Solaras are making Carmen do it, which Carmen confirms, saying they claimed to know where Pasquale is—who they believe murdered their mother—and would kill him. Carmen is horrified by Elena’s suggestion that Pasquale should turn himself in so he’ll be safe from the Solaras. An article appears about the lawsuit that Lila finds disappointing because Elena didn’t write it herself. Lila finds out Gennaro is doing heroin and kicks Rino, a known addict, out of Basic Sight. Then Alfonso turns up beaten to death and hardly anyone comes to the funeral—except the Solaras. When Lila confronts Michele there and says the two of them are finished in the neighborhood, he punches her in the face.

Elena agrees to write articles that will damage the brothers using the things Lila knows from having worked for Michele. They go through a lot of documents she’s collected and work together (for the last time) to compile a piece they hope will send them to jail, but her publisher says the information isn’t enough to do that. But after she decides not to publish it, Lila sends it to a paper with Elena’s name on it. It turns out to bring her further success, and the Solaras do nothing in response, though Elisa stops talking to her. Lila, disillusioned by the lack of public response, stops helping with the children and sends her mother to, who then, to Elena’s surprise, requests payment.

Lila points out that Imma, who, along with Tina, is almost four, seems to be having problems that she attributes to a lack of parenting, so Elena makes an effort to get Nino more involved, and he comes over for lunch one day, in the fall of 1984. He takes Dede, Elsa, Imma, and Tina (whom Lila still sent up to Elena’s apartment despite Nino’s coming) outside to see his fancy new car. When Elena goes out, she sees that Nino is talking to Enzo and Lila, who’s holding Imma as if to help show her off. Then they realize that Tina is gone. Everyone looks everywhere, but there’s no trace of her, and a rumor starts that a big truck hit and dragged her off (though there’s no physical evidence to support this).

We then move into “Old Age: The Story of Bad Blood.” Elena reveals that she finally leaves the neighborhood and Naples for Turin in 1995, when Imma is fourteen and Dede and Elsa have gone off to study in the United States, where Pietro is teaching at Harvard. Imma eventually leaves to study in Paris, and Elena’s fame, maintained by a steady stream of publications, starts to wane. She visits Lila frequently. Then, some time after she sees Lila in 2005, when they came upon Gigliola’s body and Lila told her not to write about her, Elena writes a small book about what happened to Tina called A Friendship that is successful and revives her fame. Lila has ignored her ever since.

We then circle back to the period after Tina’s disappearance. The Solaras involve themselves heavily and publicly in the search. Lila maintains that Tina is still alive. She loses respect in the neighborhood since her daughter’s disappearance proves she’s not invincible, as people had thought. She has to deal with Gennaro’s drug use. Elena’s daughters start to fight with Lila more when Elena has to travel. Then Rino disappears and Gennaro and Stefano find his overdosed corpse in a junkyard. Pinuccia starts watching the girls instead of Nunzia. Elena and Lila meet the Solaras on the street one day and are falsely cordial; Michele ends up grabbing Elena’s wrist and breaking her mother’s bracelet again, and when he takes it to fix Lila claims she’ll never get it back. When Lila’s ill one day, Elena goes out to the pharmacy and hears shots fired—at the Solara brothers, who are killed (in 1986). Rumors fly, but no one knows who did it. Awhile later, Elena gets a package from a jeweler with her mother’s repaired bracelet. Lila has to be hospitalized to have her uterus removed and isn’t going to work anymore. She gives Elena a computer to write on and teaches her daughters how to use it. She starts leaving randomly to wander the city.

Nadia Galiani is arrested, while Nino is elected to a seat in Parliament. Lila points out that Dede is in love with Gennaro, which Dede admits, telling Elena she intends to run away with him after she finishes school. Elena gets Pietro to talk to Dede right before he leaves for America, but to no avail. Lila tells Pietro, who tells Elena, that she spends entire days in the library researching the city’s history. Elena sleeps with Pietro one last time before he leaves. After Pasquale is arrested due to Nadia’s testimony, Elena takes Imma with her to Rome to visit Nino to see if he can do anything for him. When she returns, Gennaro has left Lila a note that he’s left—not with Dede, but with Elsa. With Enzo, Elena finally tracks them down at Adele and Guido’s in Florence, and says both Elsa and Gennaro (who now goes by Rino) will live in their apartment until she gets sick of him. Dede leaves for America.

Enzo is arrested because of Nadia’s testimony and is held for two years; Lila spends a lot on lawyers. Surprisingly, Nadia never implicates Lila in anything, but because of the situation their business tanks and they sell it; in 1992 Enzo and Lila separate in both business and life. When Elsa finally leaves for America, Rino continues to live in their apartment and do odd jobs for Elena; he tells her that Lila is frequently writing at her computer. Then the corruption of high-level officials starts to be publicized, with both Guido Airota and Nino being accused, which upsets Imma, who idolizes her father. Lila takes Imma all over the city, sharing the history of buildings and monuments. Elena tells Imma she doesn’t think Nino will be elected again, but by shifting his position to the right, he eventually is. As Elena is getting ready to leave in 1995, Lila admits that she thought Tina was taken because of the picture of her with Elena that appeared in the paper, because the kidnappers thought she was Elena’s daughter, not hers. Elena realizes how little of Lila’s suffering she’s understood.

In Turin, Elena runs a publishing house and thinks about the manuscript Lila may or may not be working on about the city; at first she hopes she is, but then, after her daughters visit and Elsa lightly mocks her writing, making her realize how outdated and insubstantial it is, she starts to become afraid of the possibility that Lila will create something of lasting power when she hasn’t been able to. But when she sees Lila, Lila insists she isn’t writing; she starts expressing the desire to erase herself. After A Friendship is published, Lila refuses to see her, and she has to accept that their friendship is over. She ponders what about the book Lila found so offensive and thinks about the connection she drew between the lost dolls and the lost daughter. She thinks in writing this current book she’s been trying to give Lila a form with boundaries that won’t dissolve.

In the final section, “Epilogue: Restitution,” Elena rereads her pages to see if there’s any trace that Lila actually did hijack her computer and alter them, but there’s no trace of her. She returns to Naples for funerals and visits Pasquale in prison, who tells her the Solaras took Tina but doesn’t seem to actually believe it. He says when Lila wants to, she’ll turn up. Then one day, Elena gets a package wrapped in newspaper that contains her and Lila’s old dolls, Tina and Nu, and realizes Lila has been deceiving her since the beginning, but then thinks it might just be a sign Lila is well and finally traveling the world. At any rate, she must resign herself to not seeing Lila anymore. The End.  

The setup in the prologue at the beginning of the first book—Lila’s disappearance in the present—raises the question of whether she will reappear when the narrative finally, in Book 4, catches up to that present timeline. There seem two obvious possible answers to this question: yes, she will show up, or no, she won’t. Ferrante complicates the answer when Lila does effectively show up, but not in the expected way where Elena gets to see her actual person and talk to her. But the appearance of the package—obviously not mailed—implies that Lila has, in essence, reappeared.

So what does the manifestation of her reappearance, the dolls, further imply? Basically, that Lila deceived Elena at the very origin point of their relationship. This is the point Lila offers her hand to Elena when they’re going up the stairs to Don Achille’s, but this moment would not exist if the dolls had not vanished—or rather, if Elena hadn’t believed they’d vanished. The possible implication seems to be that Lila knew all along Don Achille was not responsible for taking the dolls, but went up there to accuse him anyway. In the course of doing so, she took money from him, money they then used to buy Little Women, which inspired Lila to write The Blue Fairy, which turns into the core of Elena’s first novel; without that core, the novel likely would not have been strong enough to be published, and Elena would not have had the foundation for the rest of her career. Hence, without Don Achille’s money, Elena’s life as a writer might not have happened. She profits from the neighborhood’s dirty black-market money in a similarly dubious if less direct way as Lila does when she marries Don Achille’s son Stefano. (Notably, of all the traces of herself Lila manages to erase and that have been erased, like Tina, she has left behind her son, Don Achille’s grandchild.)

The power struggle between Elena and Lila is carried through the fourth installment in a couple of different ways. Elena might consider herself to have gained more power by becoming the lover of Nino, who left Lila, though she later finds out that Nino actually tried to go back to her but that Antonio stopped him, causing Elena to wonder if Lila might have been the one woman who could have really changed Nino. As it is, she attributes power to Lila for a different reason: 

…I realized that if I had forced [Nino] to delve into himself, it would have emerged that the highest example of female intelligence—maybe his own worship of female intelligence, even certain lectures claiming that the waste of women’s intellectual resources was the greatest waste of all—had to do with Lila, and that if our season of love was already darkening, the season of Ischia would always remain radiant for him. The man for whom I left Pietro, I thought, is what he is because his encounter with Lila reshaped him that way.

Lila, meanwhile, maintains the upper hand by also knowing what Nino’s really up to, and by now the reader knows well, as Elena finally starts to come to terms with it, that Nino is hardly as great as she has made him out to be. We also learn in Book 4 that Elena didn’t get her first byline because Nino threw her piece away, not because the editors didn’t like it; her believing the latter nearly derailed Elena from her studies and thus her career path altogether.

How important that article had been to me, how much I had suffered. I couldn’t believe it: was it possible that Professor Galiani’s favorite had been so envious of the lines of a middle-school student that he threw them away? I felt that Nino was waiting for my reaction, but I didn’t know how to place such a petty act within the radiant aura I had given him as a girl.

The ongoing question of whether Nino is like his father is definitively answered here when she catches him fucking the older, overweight hired help. (Notably, he has to do something overtly humiliating to her to finally get her to leave him.) The influence of Donato on Elena’s literary career is also touched on when Donato tries to claim it was his verse that inspired her to write, when it was really what he did to her on the beach that inspired her first book, which led to everything else. Interestingly, it was Nino’s influence that inspired her to finish her second book after a period she’d had great difficulty writing, but when she’s trying to write her next book, he gets in her way, distracting her with the drama of his wife and then the hired help:

I remembered how, when he was our guest in Florence, he had supported me against Pietro, I thought again with pleasure of how he had encouraged me to write. But now? Now that it was crucial for me to seriously get to work, he seemed unable to instill in me the same confidence as before. Things had changed over the years. Nino always had his own urgent needs, and even if he wanted to he couldn’t devote himself to me. To mollify me he had hurried to get, through his mother, a certain Silvana, a massive woman of around fifty…

So, Lila proves to have the upper hand in the Nino situation, in both knowing more about what he’s doing and being better off not to be his lover. Elena next gains power through the success of her third book, which Lila then tries to capitalize on as a vehicle to change the neighborhood. Who’s the more powerful in this dynamic? At this point in the narrative, we’ve lost access to detailed accounts of Lila’s doings when she stops sharing them with Elena, so there’s some speculation involved. It seems that Lila knows a lot that Elena doesn’t about what goes on in the neighborhood; it seems that she’s attempting to use Elena’s power to her own ends, which would theoretically make her the more powerful. It’s when Lila tells Elena she doesn’t need to worry about Carmen and the Solaras’ lawsuit that Elena has a realization:

[] “…Write. The more you write about their disgusting affairs the more you ruin their business.”

I was depressed. Lila thought this? This was her project? Only then did I understand clearly that she ascribed to me the power that as children we had ascribed to the author of Little Women.

The attitude of Elena’s mother, in fact, is a helpful way to gauge how Lila’s power has shifted, as her attitude reflects that of the neighborhood in general. In the period after Lila’s left Stefano and is working at the sausage factory in Book 3, Elena’s mother flips out when Elena hangs out with Lila, who’s considered a “whore.” But after her mother gets sick, she regrets giving most of her family to the Solaras and believes Lila is the only one capable of saving them.

If she had gone so far as to assert that I was the black soul of Lila, and not Lila mine, I must have been a truly intolerable disappointment to her.

Lila is at the height of her power in this period, when she has the influence and capability to threaten the Solaras on a much broader scale than merely holding a shoemaker’s knife to Marcello’s throat (a moment that in hindsight is clearly foreshadowing what’s to come). She has the power to mess with their finances via what she learned working for Michele, and she also threatens Michele’s mental stability by apparently getting him to do things with her male look-alike Alfonso.

While Elena enjoys literary success in this period, it has not come without consequences, and her central internal conflict, writer v. mother, rears its head:

What could I do to keep my life and my children together?

The source of her literary power is also undermined when she reveals that it derives from what amounts to hypocrisy:

Although I now wrote about women’s autonomy and discussed it everywhere, I didn’t know how to live without [Nino’s] body, his voice, his intelligence. It was terrible to confess it, but I still wanted him, I loved him more than my own daughters. 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.

She also seems to acknowledge that Lila still has the potential to be the more powerful writer:

I felt all the fascination of the way Lila governed the imagination of others or set it free, at will, with just a few words: that speaking, stopping, letting images and emotions go without adding anything else. I’m wrong, I said to myself in confusion, to write as I’ve done until now, recording everything I know. I should write the way she speaks, leave abysses, construct bridges and not finish them, force the reader to establish the flow…

The height of Elena’s literary power seems to coincide with Lila’s—appropriately, according to the divergent paths they’ve taken, Elena’s power derives from literature while Lila’s derives from the neighborhood—so it’s no coincidence that this is when Lila and Elena take on the last project they’ll work on together, the article they hope will undo the Solaras, but then doesn’t. The power of the written word, which Lila has seemed to fervently believe in, is thus called into question. The causal links between the events that follow are murky but present; the next major event after the publication of the article, that culmination and combination of Lila’s and Elena’s power, is the disappearance of Tina. It’s left ambiguous as to whether the Solaras are responsible for this, but it seems unlikely that Michele wouldn’t have followed through on the threat he made at Alfonso’s funeral right before he punched her, in direct response to Lila’s threat:

[] “You two are finished, you’ll have to leave the neighborhood.”

“It’s better if you go, while you still have time.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you dare touch Gennaro, and don’t touch Enzo. Michè, do you understand me? Remember that I know enough to ruin you, you and that other beast.”

“You think you scare me because Lenuccia is always in the newspapers? Is that what you think? That I’m afraid of someone who writes novels? But this here is no one. You, however, you are someone, even your shadow is better than any flesh-and-blood person. But you would never understand, so much the worse for you. I’ll take away everything you have.”

Michele, who derives his power from the neighborhood, as Lila does, considers Lenuccia “no one” and Lina “someone.” (Interestingly, Lila specifically names Enzo and Gennaro here but not Tina; the reference recalls the time Gennaro went missing from school, and though he turned up seemingly unharmed, it seems possibly implied that he might have been given drugs.) But when Michele punches her immediately after this, it would seem to indicate that he is no longer in the place Gigliola once confided he was, in Book 3, to Elena:

[] Lina was the only woman in the world [Michele] loved—love, yes, as in the films—and respected.

“Could he lose his head, do you think, and hurt Lina?”

She uttered a kind exclamation, between a laugh and a cry.

“Him? Lina? Haven’t you seen how he’s behaved all these years? He could hurt me, you, anyone, even his father, his mother, his brother. He could hurt all the people Lina is attached to, her son, Enzo. And he could do it without a qualm, coldly. But to her, her person, he will never do anything.”

Love can fade, as we’ve certainly scene over the course of Book 4. Interestingly, Gigliola seems to predict that if Michele wanted to hurt someone, he might go for their family members; though this prediction is long before Tina is born, it seems to hint that he might be her captor, especially since not long before Tina’s disappearance a scene is dedicated to showing that Michele wants to hurt Lila.

Both the climax of Tina’s disappearance and its logistical execution are, as should be unsurprising by now, pitch perfect, braiding the two threads that have been the grounds of Elena and Lila’s power struggle: the power of the written word, and Nino. Rachel Cusk in the New York Times Book Review claims:

The fate of the women’s two daughters — their mothers’ imagos, the re-enactors of their symbiosis — is, predictably perhaps, entirely symbolic.

While I agree with the first part, I take issue with the claim that Tina’s disappearance is “entirely symbolic,” as it serves a purpose of the plot, arising directly from it, while a claim of “entire symbolism” should technically mean it was heavy-handedly plunked in with no connection to the plot. Of course, if it is the Solaras who took Tina, then they likely would have made it happen at some point or another, but the way it does happen, it’s directly because of Nino’s new fancy car, which he’s taken the girls outside to look at. (Nino has finally, through the cultivation of his female connections, achieved the status symbol the Solaras had in the first book.) Nino is over there in the first place because Lila made Elena worry that Imma wasn’t getting enough attention—and it would seem Lila did believe this if she was holding Imma to show her off and not watching Tina.   

Tina’s death is the culmination of what should theoretically be the continuation of “Middle Time,” though the chapter numbers start over, which should technically make it its own, unnamed section. Like Book 1 only, Book 4 is comprised of two sections. “Old Age” is almost parallel in length to Book 1’s “Childhood.” In order to do this, Ferrante actually has to umbrella under Old Age what might be considered the concluding part or resolution of Middle Time. But having a section break after Tina’s disappearance provides a shift that marks that point as an important climax. She then follows the structural pattern she’s established with such section breaks: leap forward to a point years ahead of the point the previous section ended, provide an overview and/or peek at the future, then circle back, or pull the slingshot back, to cover the period skipped over in detail—that is, pick up at the point where the last section left off. Then the narrative slingshot is fired, and it will eventually catch up to the point of the opening and then move even further forward from there.

For the “Old Age” opening, we leap forward eleven years ahead of when Tina disappeared in 1984, to the moment Elena finally leaves the neighborhood and Naples, in 1995; this would seem to be the point old age starts for her. She also drops the bomb that Lila stopped talking to her after she published a book about what happened to Tina. The same thing that enables her to regain the power of her literary reputation severs her connection with Lila.

After Tina’s disappearance, Lila loses the power she derived from the neighborhood, and Elena continues to live there despite her continued literary career. She’s also gotten to keep all of her daughters, despite the problems they have, so in this period she would seem to have the upper hand. Lila undermines it with her near-climactic revelation right before Elena finally leaves the neighborhood—another manifestation of her continued power—that Tina might have disappeared because of the mistaken caption in the paper, continuing the theme of the power of the written word. Lila implies that Tina might have been taken because of what was supposed to be Elena’s source of power, her success.

Elena’s power in the extended period of her literary career is further undermined by Lila’s research about the city. Once she loses her power in the neighborhood, she expands her scope to encompass all of Naples by studying its history. She would seem to know more context than anyone else about the place they came from. Elena isn’t threatened by this knowledge in and of itself, but by the possibility that it could secure Lila a literary reputation that would outstrip her own. Her daughters’ holiday visit one year when they read some of her past passages out loud confirms for her that despite her success at the time, she has not created anything of last value. Elena seems to realize that Lila is capable of creating something that would be, even if she never actually gets her own work published. Elena has not lived up to the opportunity she got that Lila didn’t.

And, finally, with the appearance of the dolls at the end, Lila would seem to be the winner of this power struggle. She is the mastermind and the manipulator.

Here’s what she had done: she had deceived me, she had dragged me wherever she wanted, from the beginning of our friendship. All our lives she had told a story of redemption that was hers, using my living body and my existence.

This would seem to be appropriate revenge on Elena, who took so much inspiration from Lila, from The Blue Fairy to the ideas she used during her college entrance exam to what Lila did to Alfonso to the connection between Manuela Solara’s and Don Achille’s deaths to Tina’s disappearance. Of course, Lila’s appropriation would technically have occurred before Elena’s, though we learn of it later, complicating who exactly deserves what. But when Elena tries to use her power, her writing, to describe Lila’s fall from power via Tina’s disappearance, she loses access to the power struggle altogether.

It’s interesting that before Elena gets the package with the dolls, she specifically notes that it might have been the connection she drew between the lost dolls and lost daughter in her book that Lila found so offensive. The revelation that the dolls were never actually lost, then, has interesting implications for the lost daughter, perhaps implicating Lila more directly in that disappearance—not that she lost her on purpose, but that her actions caused the disappearance—namely her actions toward the Solaras.

We feel the grief of the lost intimacy between Elena and Lila when we start getting less access to what’s going on with Lila. In Book 1, the pair is fairly intimate, always proximate; in Book 2, the device of the notebooks allows Ferrante to develop Lila as a character free of the constraints of Elena’s perceptions; in Book 3, Lila’s night-long confession to Elena the night she quits the factory provides a wealth of vivid detail that in Book 4 conspicuously, and painfully, fades away. The loss of access means we have many unanswered questions. Was Lila involved in Bruno Soccavo’s death? Did the Solaras take Tina? Did Lila or Enzo have anything to do with the Solaras’ deaths?

The lack of answers contributes to the ongoing theme of order v. chaos:

…sometimes [Enzo] was ashamed at having to transform the filth of exploitation into the tidiness of programming. Lila, for her part, said that to obtain that tidiness the bosses had been forced to show her all their dirt close up, and she spoke sarcastically about the duplicity, the tricks, the scams that were behind the façade of orderly accounts.

and:

[Lila] had explicitly forbidden me not only to write about her but also to use persons and episodes of the neighborhood. When I had, she always found a way of telling me—even if painfully—that the book was bad, that either one is capable of telling things just as they happened, in teeming chaos, or one works from imagination, inventing a thread, and I had been able to do neither the first thing nor the second.

Not coincidentally, when Lila finally shares her experience of “dissolving boundaries” with Elena during the earthquake, the idea of “threads” figures prominently:

“Take Alfonso, he’s always made me nervous, ever since he was a boy, I’ve felt that the cotton thread that held him together was about to break. And Michele? Michele thought he was who knows what, and yet all I had to do was find his boundary line and pull, oh, oh, oh, I broke it, I broke his cotton thread and tangled it with Alfonso’s, male material inside male material, the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the head finds a way.”

While Lila killing the Solaras would indicate power, the same day they’re killed, she’s hospitalized, putting an emphasis on her weakness, perhaps implying that she was not in fact powerful enough to get rid of the Solaras: 

And above all I had to tend to Lila, who that same Sunday was suddenly torn from the neighborhood, from her son, from Enzo, from her job, and ended up in the hands of the doctors, because she was weak, she saw things that seemed real but weren’t, she was losing blood. They discovered a fibromatous uterus, they operated and took it out. Once—she was still in the hospital—she woke suddenly, exclaimed that Tina had come out of her belly again and now was taking revenge on everyone, even on her. For a fraction of a second she was sure that the killer of the Solaras was her daughter. (Emphasis mine)

It’s no coincidence that the earthquake that shakes the city (thematically reinforcing the tenuous foundations of everything, specifically the tenuous foundation of Don Achille’s money) happens just as Lila’s describing something with the power to collapse their neighborhood—the fact that the Solaras have been bringing drugs into it. The earthquake also reveals her mental instability, her problem with boundaries, that also reared its head when she was trying to fight the terrible conditions at the sausage factory. The places her mind goes to when confronted with such extreme stress seem to be the manifestation of her intense intelligence. 

With the drug trafficking, the neighborhood is shown to be a corrosive force, a perilous place, but on the other hand, Elena’s distancing herself from the neighborhood is shown to be potentially harmful when the onset of her mother’s decline happens in Elena’s apartment on Via Tasso, about which Lila says: 

“You insist on staying up here, it’s hard to get here.”

Not long after Lila declares this, Elena’s mother starts dripping blood; there’s an implication that the length she had to go to to get to Elena on Via Tasso caused this harm. Notably, the Via Tasso neighborhood overlooks the one she grew up in and where Lila still lives, while when Elena finally does move all the way back, she takes up residence in the apartment above Lila’s. This positioning of herself over Lila would seem not to be a symbol of her actually being better than Lila as of her trying to be.

Clever as she’s shown to be, we definitely know Lila is capable of miscalculating—her marriage to Stefano proves that, leads to her realization in Book 2 after their honeymoon:

“You remember that Don Achille gave us money instead of the dolls?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“We shouldn’t have taken it.”

“We bought Little Women.”

“We were wrong: ever since that moment I’ve been wrong about everything.”

Lila seems, ultimately, to have made a miscalculation in her ability to take on the Solaras, judging by what happens to Tina. The question is, was it worth it, and/or the right/smart thing to do? She was, after all, taking them on out of an interest for Tina’s well-being:

“I gave Gennaro what was possible, but it went badly.”

“It’s the fault of the neighborhood.”

She looked at me gravely, she said:

“I don’t have much faith in it, but since you’ve decided to stay here with us, let’s change the neighborhood.”

Here, Lila’s decision to take on the Solaras is directly linked to Elena’s decision to stay in the neighborhood. (But we can’t forget why Elena was finally willing to go back to Naples in the first place—not for Lila, but for Nino.) But by trying to save Tina from the clutches of the neighborhood, it seems Lila might have ended up tossing Tina directly into them—just like she did as a child with the dolls. By showing Elena the dolls at the end, it seems possible she’s admitting to some kind of miscalculation with that deception also—admitting, perhaps, that it’s really Elena who wins the power struggle.

Elena says in the final line that she’s resigned herself to not seeing Lila anymore. This is the price she’s paid for what she took from her, writing about her life, being inspired by her, doing what she didn’t have the opportunity to do and could have done better. With the friendship lost, nobody wins here really. That Lila has not inserted herself into Elena’s pages, which might ostensibly be a threat to Elena’s source of power, actually disappoints Elena; the fact that Lila did actually show up, as evidenced by the dolls, but still didn’t touch the pages subtly accentuates this disappointment. The account in these four books is Elena’s alone; it is not a collaboration. The power does not find a balance. It’s a bittersweet ending indeed. Such is life.

-SCR  

(image credit: Emiliano Ponzi)

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