I raced through the final Neapolitan novel, as forewarned, guided by the suspicion that there is no Lila Cerullo.
- Lila and Elena are so thoroughly twinned
- Ferrante’s deftness with a style many have tried to name and I’ll try calling “hallucinatory realism,” ie the portrayal of the hallucinatory state as fully enveloped in the real, is well known
- And Lila is so extremely Large and In Charge as to have exceeded the bounds of the human
that Lila makes the most sense as Elena’s fantasy other self. Not as a functioning, psychologically realistic, humanlike character. Rachel Cusk also said this.
From this perspective, the book group sloganeering about these books being “richly insightful about women’s friendships” becomes absurdly, delightfully ironic.
In the fourth book, fearsome Lila takes on a more human scale. She hassles Elena about her crap-ass mothering, said hassling a tool of emotional manipulation. She remains silent about Elena’s dumb relationship with a known Skank but swoops in with A New Apartment! Above hers! after orchestrating the big inevitable reveal that Skankers gotta keep on Skank Skank Skankin (from that song of the summer “Skank it Off”). She graciously offers to babysit sometimes and blows Elena off other times, when she’s mad. She hates sex.
In other words, Lila becomes Elena’s mother.
Suggesting that mothers are only hallucinatorily real. Your mother is someone you invented. It’s ok, though, because she invented you too: Lila makes Elena a writer and, thus, makes Elena.
Elena makes Lila the same way. And destroys her. Sorry, Mom.
So when both characters become regular ol’ mothers in the fourth book, due around the same time and attending appointments together, holding hands during the pelvic exams, babysitting each other’s kids and wrestling with the quotidian WLB (work/life/blurg) of having kids and jobs, a TfH waits in anticipation for the symbolism, the meta, the allusion, the hallucinated other shoe to flicker in n out n down, tricking my brain into thinking it hears the sound of a plot device dropping.
Two key moments of motherhood in this final book show the tension between the hallucinatory and the real: One, the heartrending, manifestly realistic moment that Elena’s grown children read her books aloud to their partners the way young smartypantses read older, dated smartypants books out loud at parties for a knowing smartypants laugh. An erasure of selfhood for Elena, ridiculing her life’s work. Mocking that she violated every rule of Naples womanhood to support her children as a single mom working a creative job. Trivializing decades of saga about Elena becoming a writer and thus becoming a self.
Mockery by one’s children, y’all. May none of us ever live so long. Would anything cut deeper?
Well, one thing might: the loss of a child, before she’s old enough to mock.
A lost child sharing a name with a lost doll and everything else with a lost mother. Three nested figures, all vanished into a void of impoverishment, corruption, foreclosed promise, and a culture that may in fact prefer to annihilate women and girls.
But in contrast to the quotidian heartbreak of Elena’s children’s mockery, Lila’s loss was foreshadowed and inevitable enough to lie outside the real. Part deeply felt loss, sure. But also part hallucinatory conflation of literary tragedy and feminist mythmaking. [Insert list of tragic literary women here. It’s a long list]. The inevitability of woman’s pain. Woman enveloped by loss. Woman as full and then empty womb. Woman as pure sorrow.
Lila is both a hallucinatory twin of Elena (and her daughter and her old doll) and a real-seeming woman who cannot survive a real-seeming loss.
In these books, every moment is seeped in fictiveness. Including the final volume’s eponymous loss.
Many critics note the depth of this series’s meta, its investment in writing as self-making, and conclude that art–in inevitable particular, writing–saves us. Sure. Sure it does.
But I see Ferrante as far more cynical. Her women cannot exist outside the stories men write about them.
When they try to write their own stories, they lose everything.