I will write up one review for the whole series. It’s not really a winter break kind of set of books because it takes place in southern Italy, but I was able to get the audiobooks from Overdrive and felt like I had it in me to reread this series. This is narrated by the same reader who narrated Elena Ferrante’s nonfiction collection Frantumaglia which means fragments (kind of) and that collection is just a brilliant set of interviews (questions sent; answers sent back) and a few short essays about her writing leading up to the writing of these novels. If she ever writes a follow-up regarding these novels, I will be first to buy it. Not only is she a great novelist, and I mean great….so great….she’s is an incredibly thoughtful thinker about her own writing.
So I read these first a few years back and my thoughts have shifted a little. Because I understand the whole of the series and where it is leading and who the characters are, I didn’t have the initial issues I had with the first novel the first time I started. The novel starts with a prologue that gives you some vital information about the narrator, her friend Lila, and Lila’s adult son Nino, but because you don’t know anything about them, it’s hard to understand what you’re reading. That’s not to say that it’s purposefully difficult as for effect or to suggest a mystery, but the opposite. The opening is so consistent with where these women end up by the end, it’s hard to recall that indeed there’s no mystery at all, so much as a clear and inevitable resolution shown to you in the opening pages. And because of this false sense of mystery, the novel seems like it’s going to start off in a fable-like way, and it almost does, but instead, the stories of childhood are no more than the same type of characterization through minutiae that will proceed for the next 1700 pages. By the end of the first long section though, it’s easy to be unclear what the novel is and where it’s headed. But if you’re not absolutely hooked by the last paragraph which lands with such a beautifully satisfying thunk, there’s no hope for you.
As the second novel begins, I would say very much the same. Lenu starts us off with the narrative framework we need to understand how she has the insights she has. She has insights, but they come from an analytical reading of Lila’s journals alongside her memories and recollections. It’s important to know that at this point, we still don’t know much about where Lenu is as an adult (still to come) and so the groundwork for how she’s so dead-on as a narrator has been laid, but not emphasized yet. But, as I would argue, if you picked up the second book, which is longer, has an even dumber cover, and didn’t convince yourself you know more than the scores of people who do recognize this collection of novels as significant, you’re going to keep reading anyway. The second book takes some of what the first book does and recasts it through an older person’s lens….not the older narrator but the now late teens Lila and Lenu. So they return to the island and similar events play out with different results.