I’m afraid I may never be able enjoy another book. These Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante are pure perfection and set way too high a bar for anything I may read from now on. I’m reviewing them as a set because I gobbled up all four in under three weeks and they are so cohesive. Although the books were released one by one, each September since 2012, it’s easy to imagine Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym) sitting down and writing all 2,000 or so pages in one go. I can understand why Lizzie Widdicombe of the New Yorker said these books “go down like a warm drink of crystal meth.”
So, just for reference, here are the books:
This series has gotten so much press that it feels almost redundant to explain, but this is a story of a friendship between two woman born in the same struggling and often violent neighborhood of Naples. It begins in the early 1950s when the two main characters, Elena Greco (our narrator) and Lila Cerullo, are in primary school and follows their lives until around 2010. There is a pivotal moment early on in the first novel where Lila is forced to give up schooling and Elena continues her education. This creates the opportunity for Elena to eventually leave Naples and advance in social status, while Lila remains fully tied up in the old neighborhood. Despite that early divergence, their lives are so intertwined that neither character would be able to exist without the other, at least in a recognizable way. It’s clear that this story is personal and Ferrante intentionally coaxes the reader to imagine the books are autobiographical, which adds to the seductiveness the read.
The books begin with Elena in her mid-60s looking back at her friendship with Lila. This conceit works well; it allows the narration to be a bit distanced and calm while reflecting back on Elena’s often intense emotions. These novels read in a straight-forward, lucid way, but there is an undercurrent of something more powerful. Sometimes I had to stop and just marvel at the energy of the writing. This is such a feminist and feminine novel that the speculation that Ferrante is actually a man (or a committee of men . . . because how could one woman write so well?) feels especially insulting.
There is a constant tension between Elena and Lila that captures the type of friendship in which each woman knows the other a little too well. Elena is envious of Lila. She seems to always fear, with good reason, that Lila is going to one up her and upset her position in the world. Elena’s success is built on her relationship with Lila and, although she loves her, she also doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of her to advance her writing career. Lila seems to seesaw between selflessness and cruelty toward Elena. Interestingly, in several instances, a third character suggests to Elena that Lila hates her, but Elena always brushes off those comments and Ferrante leaves that possibility ambiguous (personally, I think she loves her in her own complicated way, but I can be sentimental like that).
The first few chapters of My Brilliant Friend do get off to a bit of a slow start, but once the momentum builds, these are books you cannot put down. Ferrante keeps a tight balance of external action driving the plot and reflective, internal conflict within Elena. What impressed me most were the layers of depth she was able to create in Elena. As the reader, you understand Elena’s motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. She makes a lot of questionable choices – some difficult to read. She’s threatened by Lila until the very end, which was a surprise for me because I expected the last couple pages of the fourth book to wind down in a more mild way.
It’s also amazing that in the last few pages of the final book she was able to circle everything back to a seemingly benign event in the beginning of the first book – and do it in a way that, incredibly, felt genuine instead of contrived.
The only negative point I can think of is the original covers of the books have almost nothing to do with the story. The pastels give the impression of a totally different type of book – one I would never pick up if I were browsing in a bookstore. This is a great lesson in not judging a book by its cover.
Everything I write about these novels sounds so trite compared to the real impact of the story. But, trust me (and literally everyone else who’s read them), this is an experience you do not want to pass up.
Edited to add: photo credit Bustle.com