Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The fourth, and final, book in the Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child came to me at a time when I didn't realize how roiling and chaotic my own thoughts on friendship and family were and sent me into a tailspin of doubt, reconciliation with my own foibles, and a sort of certainty that life is never what you want it to be.

While I've been posting photos of vegetables and my cat, pretending I'm June Cleaver and that everything is just fine, I'm slowly coming unglued. My birthday passed and there was one phone call from a very dear friend (a friend who is lovely and wonderful and seriously kept me from losing everything that night). My husband scheduled a class that evening and I spent my birthday alone on the couch, eating a cupcake I bought for myself, reading this book and sobbing. No phone calls from a couple of people for whom I thought that I would be important enough to remember. No presents from my husband to open. No celebration dinner.  It's not that I'm an adult who thinks people should remember my birthday. I'm really not. I don't expect it be remembered by the vast majority of other people, but there are other people whose birthdays I make a fuss over, and it was painful to sit on the couch and realize that I wasn't important enough for them to remember me. 

And then.

Then I realized that I have already had this epiphany. No one gives a shit but me and that's okay. I need to fucking deal with it. If I want to hear from my mother ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE DAY OF MY BIRTH, I am going to be the one to call. If I want my husband to buy me a cupcake and give me presents on the actual day of my birthday, I need to tell him so in advance. If I want something, I need to say it.  People have their own lives and their own concerns and I understand that I'm not that priority.  But it hurts.  And I hate that it hurts. I hate that I care and that I'm mad at people who don't care and don't know and it all feels sort of passive aggressive and even my husband who hears 99.9% of my thoughts has no idea how upset I was and still am and OH MY GOD WHY AM I NOT ON MEDICATION to sort all this out?

"Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them." (page 451 of paperback Europa edition)

This book captures so many of the rises and falls in enduring relationships.  The mother/daughter pairs, some strong, some rancorous, some so frayed you wonder if there actually was ever a physical bond; the friendships of women who have been friends since girlhoods, friendships that wax and wane as the stages of life align or separate; the romantic entanglements of the young and the old, what makes the relationships start and stop and sputter like a lawnmower engine, and how the moments of love told are always the beginning and the end, while the mushy middle is as lost to time as a series of daily normalcies that are long forgotten; and, of course, the relationship one has with one's own self, at once forgiving and loving and malicious and cruel because there is nothing so harmful as your own words of harsh judgment and excoriating criticism. 

It nearly broke me.

In every relationship, there are landmines you dare not tread. You don't talk about the time when X happened, you don't talk about Trump, you don't talk about religion, you don't talk about that person, you don't talk about the things that matter because you know that the crack is barely cemented together and when you bring it up, there will soon be an entire sinkhole into which your relationship fell.

And there's something so hard about realizing it's your relationship with yourself that's in danger of becoming that sinkhole.  You avoid so many topics in your own mind, you focus on the minutiae of living, and you become someone different, someone you don't recognize and maybe don't even like.

Who is "the lost child" in the title? I think that's an incredibly important question. There's an obvious answer in the plot of the novel, but I tend to think that lost child is really the narrator, who never had a chance to be a carefree young girl and grew into a neurotic mess of a woman.  But then again, why wouldn't I think that?

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