Those who have read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog might see echoes in Nicola Gardini’s Lost Words in that this later novel has main characters of a concierge, here called a “door woman” and an adolescent, here a thirteen-year-old. Chino/Luca is the doorwoman’s son and like in Barbery’s book, he finds inspiration for his intellect in someone living in the apartment building, here on the outskirts of Milan instead of Barbery’s Paris. Lost Words, however, is a darker view of the apartment dwellers and the labors of the narrator’s mother, which makes the unusual inspirers who enter the scene that much more exciting. In addition, the contrast between the intellectual newcomers and the backbiting and hypocritical tenants makes for drama and humor.
The novel is in sections, the first establishing the ugly treatment of Chino’s mother by the “signore,” who exhibit airs and competitions in their working-class neighborhood. The second section introduces Amelia Lynd, a frail elderly English lady who teaches Chino (whom she insists on calling Luca, his real name) the English language and, more importantly, the value of words. Section III shows how Lucas has learned from Miss Lynd, getting him in trouble in school for his ideas:
For my Italian finals I decided to write about freedom. [ . . . ] I thought about my mother, who’d never had a taste of freedom. I thought about what I’d learned from Miss Lynd: that the Italians didn’t know freedom because they’d almost always been dominated. [ . . . ] Like the Russians, Italians were inclined to entrust everything to a leader, [ . . . ] that Italians didn’t understand the concept of the present [ . . . ] Italians postpone everything until tomorrow, and the next day do the same thing, infinitely [ . . . ] They wouldn’t know what to do with real freedom because it would require hard work, dedication, constant vigilance—and Italians are lazy [ . . . ]
Only one of Chino’s teachers acknowledge what he’s written as truth. Regardless, he earns praise from Lynd as he gives value to her life. Section IV introduces Ippolito, Lynd’s son, who reveals a dictionary written by Lynd, which they then work on together. But the tenants, ever jealous, take devastating action against Ippolito. Still the lost words are not lost and their value remains with Luca, and with the reader as well.
Eccentric Amelia Lynd’s lessons to Chino include the important “everyone is not what they seem,” including the residents. But even among the other often violent residents, Gardini inserts humor. One little girl is asked at a burial to “take a clump of dirt and throw it on nonna,” her grandmother:
The little girl, figuring nonna was the older woman standing in front of her rather than the one lying in the grave, grabbed a handful of soil and threw it at Mantegazze. “Good god!” the woman shouted “a little respect! Don’t you realize I’m burying my mother?”
Ultimately, this is a novel about a boy’s self-realization through the love of language as taught by his English teacher the Maestra Lynd, Chino’s second mother, and then fulfilled through her son, Ippolito. Although initially similar to Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery’s work has a surprise sad ending, whereas Gardini’s ending flows more consistently towards an uplifting revelation, and he gives a darker view of the residents in Chino’s apartment house. Lost Words is a paean to the power of words, and that discovery by a young boy who is changed forever.