Not long ago, I came to the last page of the final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. I had put off that moment as long as possible—nursing the book for a full week rather than racing to the end as I wished—but it had come. It was time to leave Naples behind, to put Elena and Lila and their tumultuous friendship aside. I’d read all four books back to back, unwilling to set them aside to read anything else until I arrived, out of breath and in a sort of literary fog, at the end.
In a recent Guernica interview, Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, admitted she was initially worried how the series would draw to a close:
I thought I would feel upset. And I was worried about how Ferrante was going to end it. Would it be satisfying? Would it not be? I found that it was wonderful . . . It ended the way you think things happen in life, with many questions unanswered—which you could feel was unsatisfying or even unfair on the part of the author. But I thought, she’s really giving you this woman’s life. And this is what happens in life.
Goldstein’s comments echo protagonist Elena Greco’s own observation in the final novel, The Story of the Lost Child. “Unlike stories,” Elena narrates, “real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.”
The questions left unanswered in The Story of the Lost Child resonate with me. I’m living with similar loose ends. I, too, am chasing after a vanishing friendship.
Last September, I sat down at my writing desk and did not get up again until I’d written more than 7,000 words of an essay draft about a dear friend I no longer speak to. My own Lila.
During that writing time, I was not part of the present. I was not myself. I was sent back ten, fifteen, twenty years, back to the beginning of a friendship that would first define my sense of self and then rip that definition away, leaving me uncertain and lost and reaching. I wrote as in a fog. I wrote with the same sort of reckless abandonment that I would experience when I finally picked up My Brilliant Friend and immersed myself in Elena and Lila’s story.
I printed out that essay draft and took it with me to a writing retreat. I crossed the lake on a ferry and stayed at a ramshackle island house with a group of other writers. One of these writers would tell me that parts of my essay called to mind Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, which I hadn’t read or even begun at the time. I told myself I had not yet embarked on this celebrated series because I was waiting for the publication of the final book. I told myself I’d get around to it soon. Most of all, I told myself that whatever I had created with my haphazard essay draft—those rushed words recreating my own intimate, cataclysmic female friendship—couldn’t be anything like Ferrante’s work.
And of course it isn’t. In her n+1 review, Dayna Tortorici suggests that Ferrante’s novels are perhaps “too good” to tackle in the book-reviewing arena as we know it.
“The most one can hope to do in writing about Ferrante,” Tortorici states, “is to ignore her.”
Throughout the course of Ferrante’s four-book series, Elena and Lila enter and exit one another’s lives repeatedly. They are close, they are distant. They are affectionate, they are cruel. Their relationship lasts, and it doesn’t. At one point in The Story of the Lost Child, Lila tells Elena that her favorite key on a computer keyboard “is the one that deletes.”
This type of erasure—or the longing for it—is central to the series. It is also, as it turns out, central to one of the most important friendships of my life, the one I thought for sure would survive.
My friend and I had no dramatic blowup, no argument or simmering resentment, no external reason that I could see for our separation. Instead she began slipping away, slowly and then faster, as though she started running downhill and lost control until she had no choice but speed straight to the bottom. I am not the only person she abandoned; our mutual friends have lost her, too, and so I cannot even take our parting personally.
I have my theories about why my friend may have pulled back, theories I can’t bring myself to write here even though I don’t believe she’ll ever read these words. I worry for her. I am infuriated with her. I dream about her, and so she follows me even into my subconscious. Or more likely, I’m the one following her, mirroring our former friendship. Of the two of us, she always shined the brightest. She drew people to her; she was real while I was uncertain and grasping and false. And yet she loved me anyway. She was my Lila. My brilliant friend.
In The Story of the Lost Child, as Elena considers her lifelong friendship with Lila, she muses: “. . . I had only come up against yet another proof of how splendid and shadowy our friendship was, how long and complicated Lila’s suffering had been, how it still endured and would endure forever.”
Splendid and shadowy, a suffering that endures—these could be key descriptors of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series itself.
As for my own essay about my friend, I changed all the names, cut a few thousand words, and am left with a story I’m still pulling into shape. I wrote it thinking I would never publish it or even attempt to. It was too personal, too close to my friend’s life.
And yet the longer I go without hearing from my friend, the more I believe she is wholly disappeared and that I’m free to portray our friendship on the page. Maybe she was never by my side as I remembered. Maybe I conjured her. I picture her as another fiction, just one more person I imagined—black words on a white page. There she is, glowing on my computer screen. Waiting in my memory. Lingering in the key that allows me to delete.
Elena Greco admits, in the final book:
I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last. I thought it was my task. I was convinced that she herself, as a girl, had assigned it to me.
I love my friend, even still. I want her to last. But I never believed she had assigned me any task. She never asked for anything, not then and certainly not now. Instead, she loved me fiercely for a number of years, and then she retreated. She let me go.
When I put down the final book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, I felt a sense of grief but also lightness. Grief that this vibrant and violent story was over, and relief that I had, even as a mere reader, been a part of it at all.