Previously on the Neapolitan Novels: Your Study Guide to Elena Ferrante
On September 1, the fourth and last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child, will hit bookstores — to the joy of Ferrante fans everywhere, and to the chagrin of all those who have not had a chance to read the previous three, but would very much like to participate in the myriad dinner party conversations that will inevitably revolve around the final installment.
If you fall into the second camp (or have read the books, but lack an elephant’s memory), never fear! Below you will find a summary of each of the previous books — complete with hard-to-pronounce names, flashbacks and flashforwards, and enough plot twists to fill a season’s worth of All My Children. While faking having read a Ferrante novel is probably impossible, and nothing can approximate the immense pleasure of reading these books, these summaries should bring you up to date enough to dive headlong into the fourth without succumbing to confusion. Buona fortuna!
[If you still can’t get enough Ferrante, join us in the audience of Symphony Space on September 28 as John Waters, Sonali Deraniyagala (Wave), Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), and Judith Thurman (The New Yorker) discuss of The Story of the Lost Child, moderated by Parul Sehgal (New York Times Book Review). Excerpts will be performed by Jenny Slate and others.]
Book One: My Brilliant Friend
The first Neapolitan novel begins with a revelation: middle-aged Raffaella Cerullo has vanished without a trace, fulfilling a wish she had professed years earlier to make “every one of her cells” disappear, and prompting the narrator, Elena Greco, to tell the story of their friendship.
Frame in place, we flashback to the early 1950s. Raffaella and Elena, known to each other as Lila and Lenù, are elementary school students in a working-class village in Naples. An intricate social web dictates the lives of adults and children alike: everyone knows everyone’s business, custom is king, and the possibility of violence looms always. Elena becomes fascinated with Lila due to her daring and intelligence.
When they are seven years old, Lila throws Elena’s doll into the basement of Don Achille, the local gangster whom all of the neighborhood children are taught to fear. Elena follows suit, doing the same to Lila’s doll. Despite their fear of Don Achille, they approach his door, and ask for their dolls back. He tells them he does not know what has happened to their dolls, and sends them away with money instead.
This event ends up solidifying the girls’ relationship. They become best friends — anchored to one another by their intellect and their dreams for the future. And yet, the power dynamic between the girls is constantly in flux: who is prettier, who is jealous of the other, who is more popular, who is doing “better” shifts several times (in Elena’s mind) during their childhood and adolescence. This perpetual back and forth, and the girls’ sustained friendship despite it, is the driving force of the book.
When the girls are still very young, they scheme together to skip school and go farther away from the neighborhood than they ever have before. After they’ve traveled a couple of miles, they get caught in a rainstorm. Elena is willing to continue their journey, but to her surprise, Lila is adamant that they return home. This is the first time Elena realizes that, despite the bravery Lila exhibits at home, she is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the neighborhood.
Several years later, during a cacophonous display of fireworks, Lila experiences a disturbing sensation, which she describes as “dissolving boundaries.” The people around her seem to lose their shape and are revealed to be not stable beings, but fragile compositions of matter, liable to spill out of themselves at any moment. At the time, Lila does not tell Elena about her experience, but this is a sensation that will recur and haunt her throughout her life.
Over the course of their childhood, two events cause the paths of Elena and Lila to veer unalterably from one another. First, Elena’s family allows her to go on to middle school; Lila’s does not. By the end of the novel, Elena is one of only two children from her neighborhood still in school, while Lila has stifled her love of knowledge and devoted herself to her family’s shoe repair store. It is Lila’s dream of transforming the store into a full-fledged shoe-making business that leads to the girls’ second major divergence: In the last section of the novel, sixteen-year-old Lila marries Stefano Carracci, the proprietor of the town’s thriving grocery store, Don Achille’s son, and the key, Lila hopes, to the success of the Cerullos’ business. Stefano is revealed to have betrayed Lila when Marcello Solara — a local tyrant loathed by Lila for trying to force her to marry him and for leveraging his connection to the mob — shows up at the wedding wearing shoes that Lila labored years to make, and that Stefano purchased.
Elena is dating Antonio Cappuccio, and has allowed their relationship to become sexual — going as far as she dares, and fighting the urge to let him take her virginity. But while Elena is physically attracted to Antonio, she secretly holds a candle for the mentally captivating Nino Sarratore: a scholarly boy whose father’s affair with Antonio’s mother, Melina, forced Nino’s family to leave the village. At the wedding, Elena ignores Antonio in favor of Nino. For her, marriage is a distant prospect. The first novel ends as Elena gazes at her brilliant friend, who is angry and beautiful in her wedding dress. Elena knows Lili will never forgive forgive Stefano’s betrayal, and that her marriage is over the day it began.
Book Two: The Story of a New Name
Like My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name commences with a look into the future. Elena recounts an event from 1966: Lila entrusts her diaries to Elena, fearful of keeping them in the house with Stefano. Elena reads them, despite Lila’s directions not to; upset by their contents, she tosses them in a river.
Elena then segues into discussing an event recounted in the diaries: the aftermath of Lila’s wedding. En route to her honeymoon, Lila confronts Stefano about his betrayal. He rebuffs her, violently; now that they are married, he tells her, she must submit to his judgment. In their hotel room, Lila finds that she cannot defend against her Stefano’s advances. He forces himself on her, beating and raping her repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Antonio faces the prospect of being drafted into the army and having to abandon his struggling family. Elena asks the Solara brothers to get him out of it — a favor they have already done for Stefano. Antonio is deeply offended by her actions, and ends their relationship. Elena is relieved.
Elena passes exams, though not with the best grades. Lila warns Elena that if she does not succeed at the highest level, she will return to school and do better than her. It is an empty threat; Lila is pregnant, and instead throws herself into working at Stefano’s new grocery.
Stefano and Lila’s brother Rino partner with the Solaras to open a store selling Cerullo shoes. Michele Solara wants to display a photo of Lila the window; Lila agrees, on the condition that they display it as she wants. She attacks the painting with paper and scissors, transforming it into an arresting work of abstract art. Everyone except Michele is horrified, but he recognizes that it will attract an elite clientele. Elena realizes that, by modifying the painting, Lila has, in a way, succeeded in erasing herself. Soon after, Lila miscarries, and some speculate that she willed herself to do so.
The shoe store and Lila’s photo garner publicity and acclaim. After a fire causes the photo to burst into flames, Michele, angered by his colleagues’ incompetence, demands that Lila be brought in to manage the store.
Elena’s teacher invites her to a party at her house, and asks her to bring Lila. There, Elena discovers that her teacher’s daughter, Nadia, is Nino’s girlfriend. Lila feels out of place and embarrassed at the party; once they leave, she cruelly disparages Elena’s intellectual pretensions.
In an effort make Lila healthy enough to carry a child, Stefano and her family send her to Ischia for the summer. After learning that Nino will also be in the area, Elena agrees to go with her. The girls fall into a routine, spending each day on the beach with Nino and his friend Bruno Soccavo. Elena pines for Nino, but he falls in love with Lila, and the two begin an affair. Lila forces Nino to end his relationship with Nadia; Elena reluctantly serves as middleman for Lila and Nino, helping them to engineer a night together at Bruno’s house. Elena spends that night with the Sarratore family; envious of Lila, she submits to Nino’s father Donato’s advances, and he takes her virginity. Stefano arrives in Ischia, having heard rumors of Lila’s infidelity. Following a vicious confrontation, both girls leave Ischia.
Elena returns to school and tries to avoid concerning herself with Lila. She gets a scholarship to a university in Pisa, and prepares to embark on a new life. Before leaving Naples, she visits Lila at the shoe store. She learns that Lila has continued her affair with Nino, and has become pregnant. Lila and Nino intend to follow through with plans to start a new life together, despite Elena’s objections.
While Elena is at school, Lila’s life enters a new period of tumult. She and Nino move into an apartment together. Soon, though, Nino becomes intimidated by Lila’s intelligence, and begins to see her as a threat to his academic career. After less than a month of living together, he leaves her.
At the urging of her childhood friend, Enzo, who promises he will keep her safe, Lila returns to Stefano. She gives birth to a boy, Gennaro, and becomes obsessed with nurturing his intelligence. Stefano begins an affair with Antonio’s sister, Ada; Lila confronts him, and tells him Gennaro is not his son. Stefano refuses to believe her, but further restricts her freedom. Lila’s situation becomes progressively dire; eventually, Enzo takes her from Stefano’s house. They move into an apartment in San Giovanni a Tedducio, and after a chance encounter with Bruno Soccavo, Lila gets a job at his meat factory. She and Enzo remain platonic, but study together at night, in the hopes of eventually becoming computer technicians.
Elena completes her studies in Pisa. After dating a student political leader named Franco Mari, she begins a relationship with Pietro Airota, the son of a famous scholar. Shortly before graduating, she becomes engaged to Pietro, and writes a short novel: a thinly veiled account of her childhood in Naples and her experiences with Donato Sarratore in Ischia. Pietro sends a copy to his mother, Adele, who sends it to a publishing house in Milan. While in Naples for the summer, Elena learns that they have decided to publish it.
Before moving to Milan, Elena visits Lila. She finds her at the factory, battered and exhausted. Elena tells Lila about her novel, and returns to her a copy of “The Blue Fairy,” a book Lila wrote when they were children, which Elena has realized helped to inspire her novel. Lila receives the book without emotion and as Elena leaves, she tosses it in a fire.
Elena’s book is published, and she gives her first professional reading at a bookstore in Milan. The first attendant to speak is an elderly professor, who dismisses her novel as frivolous and lewd. Elena struggles to respond. Then, a young man at the back of the audience rushes to her defense, praising the novel effusively. It is Nino Sarratore.
Book Three: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
Elena begins the third book by recounting the last time she saw Lila, during a visit to the neighborhood in 2005. Walking by the elementary school, they learn that a body has been found next to the church: it is Gigliola, their childhood friend and Michele Solara’s ex-wife. It is unclear how she met her end. Before Elena leaves, Lila asks if she plans to ever write about the neighborhood. Elena says no, but Lila makes her promise that, if she does, she must leave her out of it. Or else, she’ll look on her computer and erase her files. Thinking Lila’s opposition stems from fear that the Solaras would take revenge if she ever wrote about them, Elena claims that she can protect herself. Lila laughs, “Not from me.”
Elena confesses that this is what she is counting on: that Lila will realize she is writing about her, and will come out of hiding to make her stop.
Returning to the 1960s and the scene that concluded The Story of a New Name, Nino’s defense of Elena’s book escalates to a vitriolic argument with the old professor, who eventually leaves the bookstore. After Elena signs copies of her book, Adele invites her and Nino out to dinner. Elena tells Nino that Lila has left Stefano and given birth to a son. Nino does not express guilt about leaving Lila, but instead tells Elena that Lila is “made badly,” intellectually as well as sexually. Elena wonders what he means by this, but doesn’t press him. To Elena’s disappointment, her fiance Pietro joins them at dinner. He senses her discomfort; after leaving the restaurant, he asks whether she still wants to marry him. She tells him, yes.
The professor who attacked Elena’s book at the reading reviews it in a prominent newspaper, dismissing it as frivolous and vulgar. This ends up stirring public interest; the book sells extremely well, and Elena becomes a minor literary celebrity. She embarks on a publicity tour, which includes a visit to Pietro’s sister, Mariarosa, in Milan. Mariarosa has befriended her college boyfriend, Franco Mari, who is now an important political organizer. Elena stays at Mariarosa’s house with Franco and a young mother named Silvia, who confides to Elena that the father of her child is none other than Nino.
Back in Naples, Elena tells her family of her plans to marry Pietro and live in Florence. They are initially skeptical, but Pietro visits and wins them over with his intelligence and amiability.
Meanwhile, working at the Soccavo factory, Lila faces flagrant sexual harassment, while intolerable working conditions destroy her health. Pasquale, a childhood friend turned radical communist, has reinserted himself into her and Enzo’s life. He brings them to political meetings and, along with Nadia, also a fervent communist, encourages them to become involved in the cause.
Without her permission, an extemporaneous speech given by Lila about the reality of life for factory workers is converted into a communist leaflet, and distributed at the factory. The factory becomes a warzone, with local communists and fascists daily coming to blows. Lila finds herself at the center of it all — a reluctant leader among the workers, on account of her published speech — while her health continues to deteriorate. Eventually, Michele shows up at the factory, revealing that his money is behind the Soccavo operation, and that she has unknowingly been working for him. Lila quits on the spot; amid Bruno’s violent protestations, she leaves the factory.
At this point, she asks Enzo and Pasquale to bring her Elena, who is preparing to leave Naples after Pietro’s departure.
After telling Elena what she has endured at the factory, Lila makes Elena promise her that, if something happens to her, she will take care of her son. Elena agrees, and devotes the rest of her time in Naples to caring for Lila. Elena forces Lila to see a doctor, publishes an exposé about working conditions at the factory, and finds an apartment in the neighborhood for her and Enzo. For the time being, Lila is safe, but a conversation with the Airotas’ lawyer makes clear to Elena that the Solaras are much more powerful than she thought.
Elena visits Gigliola, to make up for not being able to go to her and Michele’s wedding. Gigliola confesses to her that Michele is still in love with Lila — that his obsession with her never flagged. Next she visits their childhood friend, Alfonso; she congratulates him on his upcoming marriage to Nino’s sister, Marisa, prompting him to confess to her that he is gay. He is surprised she did not realize; he told Lila years ago.
Before Elena leaves Naples, she and Lila have a run-in with Melina, who went mad after having an affair with Donato Sarratore. Melina points out that Gennaro looks just like Stefano, and Lila realizes that she is right — that Gennaro’s father not Nino, but her hated husband.
Elena marries Pietro, and immediately becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a daughter, Dede, but struggles to care for the child and to work on a second book without help from Pietro, who is consumed by conflicts at work. Dissatisfied with her life as a housewife, Elena engages in a series of flirtations with acquaintances of Pietro. Eventually, guilt-wracked, she has unprotected sex with Pietro, and becomes pregnant again.
Meanwhile, Lila’s situation has improved. Enzo has found a job working for IBM, with Lila as his assistant. They are approaching financial security, and their relationship has become romantic.
In the final months of her pregnancy, Elena feverishly pens a second novel, and passes it along to Adele and Lila. After giving birth to another daughter, Elsa, she is dismayed to learn that her mother-in-law hated the book; Lila reluctantly reads it and confirms that it was a wasted effort.
Nadia and Pasquale turn up unannounced at Pietro and Elena’s house, taking advantage of their hospitality even as they insult their lack of political involvement. Soon after they leave, Pasquale’s sister Carmen calls Elena in a panic; Pasquale has disappeared, and she is convinced his political activities have placed him in grave danger. Meanwhile, Franco Mari loses an eye in a political brawl, and Lila, fearing for her son’s safety amid political tumult and a cholera outbreak, sends Gennaro to stay with Elena.
Bruno Soccavo is murdered during an attack on the factory; in light of Pasquale’s disappearance, Elena cannot help but suspect that he, Nadia, and Lila were the perpetrators. She sends Gennaro home, and Lila tells her she has accepted a job offer from Michele to run his new data-processing center. After learning from her mother that her sister, Elisa, has moved in with Marcello Solara, Elena rushes to Naples.
Elena ambushes her sister at her new home, but Elisa brushes off her concerns, and tells her that they have organized a dinner party in her honor. Soon, the house fills with all of Elena’s peers from the neighborhood and their families. Lila is the last to arrive. Michele praises his new employee, publically declaring that her intelligence is unequaled. The next day, Pietro and Elena visit the data-processing center, and Lila tells her that as long as she lives away from the neighborhood, there are certain things about the way things are, between all of her old acquaintance, that she will never understand.
Back in Florence, Elena and Pietro’s relationship becomes worse than ever. Pietro continues to face conflicts at work, ignoring Elena’s advice for how to address them; Mariarosa confesses to Elena that she never thought they’d stay together. One night, Pietro brings home a surprise dinner guest: Nino, working on a project in Florence, whom Pietro’s father has asked to bring a book to Pietro. Elena is thrilled by his appearance, but dismayed to learn that he is married. He and Pietro become close friends, and Elena meets Nino’s wife, Eleonora — the daughter of a prominent Neapolitan businessman.
Unbeknownst to Pietro, Elena has written a new novel: a feminist fable about the creation of woman from man, which argues that women should not model their intelligence after that of men (something Elena is ashamed to realize she has done). To Nino’s delight, she passes him a copy to read. He leaves Florence, but calls her soon after and declares it excellence. Soon, he returns, staying with the Airotas for the duration of a business trip. Abruptly, he starts to treat Pietro with contempt, openly insulting and antagonizing him. Elena goes to his room one night, intending to confront him. But when she arrives, Nino states, “You’ve decided.” Elena removes her clothes, and joins him in his bed.
Nino and Elena begin a passionate affair. Though initially torn by her actions, Elena eventually gives herself over to the affair, wholeheartedly, leaving her family to see Nino secretly. Eventually, Pietro realizes what is happening, and confronts her. After much back and forth, Elena confesses and asks for a separation. Pietro tries to stop her by involving the children, and insisting she explain to them what she has done. Elena is pained by the thought of hurting her children, but remains firm in her plan. Before leaving with Nino for a conference in Montpellier, signaling her choice to break with Pietro permanently, she tells Lila what she has done, and what she intends to do. Lila is incredulous, and tells her she is a fool — that Nino will take advantage Elena, as he did her years earlier.
Elena, furious, dismisses Lila’s concerns as rooted in jealousy and secret hatred. The next day, she leaves with Nino for Montpellier.