The New Vanguard – The New York Post

Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.

By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai

March 5, 2018

In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.

But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.

For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.

As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.

The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.

Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).

Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.

You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal

Full article

Love Letters to Authors – Elena Ferrante – Tattered Cover

Dear Elena,

Many love you because you’re unavailable. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. You choose this in part because, as you’ve said, “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” How can we not be intrigued and seduced by you?

Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. Both grow up poor in Naples, Italy during the aftermath of WWII. The books follow the pair’s divergent paths to adulthood; one becomes upwardly mobile through education and the other struggles for autonomy and a better life in their poor neighborhood. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period. These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship.

Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. The Neapolitan Novels are about the nuances of friendship and intimacy between women as much as they’re about the epic struggle for autonomy and agency in a deeply unequal and shifting society. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences. You have written a ‘serious’ piece of literature with cover art that is unapologetically feminine.

Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be.

— Colleen





Posted by Cat, Deputy Editor on January 01, 2018

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
There’s a good chance you’ve already received recommendations for Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet from gushy friends, fervent booksellers and rhapsodic librarians. So no more excuses: Read it now, because chances are, you’ll love every soapy Italian moment. Plus, Ferrante is handling the screenplay for HBO’s forthcoming adaptation, so your Neapolitan infatuation may continue indefinitely.

Little Buddha Blog

My 2017 in Fiction. Neil Gaiman, Elena Ferrante, Graeme Simsion and others

Elena Ferrante – The Neapolitan Novels

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name. And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. Some think it’s an autobiography, some even argue that the writer is male, which I find hard to believe having read her books. But everybody agrees that once you start reading her Neapolitan Novels, it’s impossible to break away.

The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. Two friends, the schoolgirls Elena Greko and Lila Cerullo, dream, read books and plan their way out of this little and limited community,  they were born into.

The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. She didn’t have any self-esteem, didn’t defend her personal borders, her best friend Lila manipulated her every way possible. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.

Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real – the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time – I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. Having been born to an academic family, I didn’t have to fight for the right to get an education as Elena did. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.

So the days passed, and I couldn’t get myself away from the audiobooks, listening every moment in the car, every second when my little one was asleep or played on his own on the playground. 4 books, almost 70 hours of audio, I fully immersed in the world of Elena and I realised, why it attracted so many readers. It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. The heroine has an amazing understanding of those feelings, her own and other people’s. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing.  I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it. But I am also sure that it’s a book that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. You either love it or hate it.


How We Eclipse Women’s Literary Brilliance With ‘Scandal’

The narrative that important, authoritative female novelists ultimately owe their brilliance to men refuses to die as we close out 2017—and it’s ensnared one of our newest literary stars. The plagiarism allegations against The Girlsauthor Emma Cline, leveled by her ex-boyfriend, have set off a bruising legal battle and exposed Cline’s personal life. But more than just sordid, they’re a public attempt to silence a young and intriguing literary voice.

The initial claim was that Cline stole part of the book from her ex using spyware. But the story of the lawsuit reads to a casual observer almost like a blackmail attempt, for which Cline has just countersued. According to reports in the New Yorker and the New York Times, the initial complaint—signed by lawyer and Weinstein defender David Boies—contained pages of information on Cline’s sexual habits, with the implicit threat that unless she settled for a large sum, they’d be released publicly.

“I never, in any scenario, could have imagined publishing a novel would have resulted in a bunch of lawyers combing through records of my porn habits,” Cline told the New Yorker. In the second, post-Weinstein version of the complaint, those pages were gone, but the damage to the writer is done. Cline told the Times that she has missed out on priceless time and energy she’d need to write a follow-up novel, calling it “a loss I don’t know how to fully comprehend.”

But as we’re made to pore over lurid details of naked pictures and Craigslist-arranged assignation, a more important and jarring question looms: how could anyone ever think any part of that book was written by a man?

A riff on the real-life story of the Manson girls, The Girls was so firmly rooted in an experience of female adolescence—specifically white, female, disaffected, angry, horny, suburban ’60s adolescence. It was a book about being a certain kind of girl. It was a story about the banality of young female anger and violence. Many readers remain willing to give men authority over these themes; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity follows another directionless young woman into a web of violence. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides channels suburban female self-harm directly through the collective male gaze. Yet The Girls felt exciting because that gaze was so deliberately absent, its Manson figure so peripheral to the titular characters’ toxic interest in each other.

The assertion that Cline, however subtly, owes her brilliance and accolades to a male hand is recurring in literary circles whenever a woman pens powerfully—like when some critics thought Elena Ferrante was a pen name for a man, even though the Italian novelist’s Neapolitan works told a story that felt so subjective, so deeply and unquestionably female. These novels, too, were a portrait of a lifelong female friendship (or frenemy-ship), set against the backdrop of a community that experienced poverty and domestic and mob violence. In Lila and Elena’s desires for escape, fury at the world and obsession with each other, many of us who succumbed to Ferrante Fever saw an exhaustive exploration of a female psyche—not necessarily ours, but someone’s. That felt new and thrilling. And like The Girls, which commanded a huge advance and was the the big book of its season, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels dominated online and in-person literary discussion for months, with avid woman fans taking the lead in the analysis.

So naturally, Literary Men were suspicious. For months, rumors swirled in the Italian and international press about the reclusive Ferrante’s true identity. Finally, she was doxxed by Claudio Gatti, a swaggering male journalist who claimed to have discovered her purported identity. Snooping through real estate and other holdings, he pinpointed her as Anita Raja, married to Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. He even went so far as to, again, float the idea that the books were a “collaboration” between the two writers.

He went forward with his quest despite Ferrante’s very clearly expressed wish to be left alone. “I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present,” she once said of her decision to remain anonymous. “To relinquish it would be very painful.” Artists and writers who are not white men continually have to fight back against a public obsession with their personal lives, a desire to link those lives with their work as a way of diminishing their talent. This is what Ferrante avoided by being anonymous, and what Gatti and others foisted onto her.

Both of these novelists achieved something rare in the literary world: books about female experiences that were critically lauded, widely read, and constantly-discussed events. They were staking out specific women’s emotional territory as universal and worthy.

And poof! Both just happen to have been undermined by men questioning their authority and even denying their (or any woman’s) authorship. Both female authors were each then further punished by an unwanted act of privacy invasion. Those twin intrusions—the outing of Ferrante’s identity and the exposure of Cline’s sex life— both attempted to permanently put asterisks on the discussion of these women’s writing. In both cases, it remains unclear whether the work will eventually surpass the “scandal” in people’s minds—many readers have vowed not to think about Ferrante’s unmasking or acknowledge it. But at least temporarily and at least for some readers, Cline is reduced to the ex-girlfriend of the guy suing her. Ferrante became the wife of another novelist.

All this recalls another agonizing literary moment from recent years: In 2014, novelist Jaqueline Woodson was called to the stage to receive her National Book Award for her masterful verse-novel about her own family, Brown Girl Dreaming. After her speech, her friend and presenter Daniel Handler made a crude racist joke. “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from,” Woodson later wrote.

Clearly, the elevation of diverse stories to a position of centrality in literature still provokes backlash, even from friends in the form of a “joke.” The message sent to other writers whose subjects and identities have previously been marginalized is that even if you do succeed, someone will be waiting to humiliate or discredit you, or simply shrink your stature. And even though readers have rallied around all three these writers in the face of insults, the effect is still discouraging. Because many serious artists want, in Ferrante’s words, “To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.” A stupid joke, a cruel lawsuit, an unwanted journalistic investigation—all these acts do their part to yank that freedom away.


Italian Authors in Search of Identity, Part II

By Valerie Waterhouse

Published on October 5, 2017

Recent authors have made Pirandello’s themes so central that the search for, or absence of, identity have become a defining characteristic of ‘Italian-ness’. Famously, Elena Ferrante has annulled her own authorial identity: ‘Ferrante’ is a cypher for an anonymous writer – possibly a translator, possibly married to novelist Domenico Starnone, possibly a stand-in for both halves of the couple – or perhaps we are all on the wrong track? The absence of a public presence frees Ferrante from ‘the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book,’ she explained to Vanity Fair.

In an article for The Guardian, Ferrante wrote about Jane Austen, who also published her novels anonymously. ‘Who wrote Sense and Sensibility? Who invented Marianne and Elinor and their mother and the many female characters who appear, disappear, reappear?’ she asked. She might well have been commenting on her own best-selling novels: The Neapolitan Quartet. Their focus is the six-decade-long friendship between Elena/Lenuccia/Lenù and Raffaella/Lina/Lila, whose changing names and the similarities between their nomenclatures (Lenù/Lina) underline the impossibility of pinning down identity across time and space. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, begins with Lina/Lila’s disappearance: ‘She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life she had left behind. Everything, including her computer, photos of herself, birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts, had gone.’ Characters stretch their boundaries so far across the course of the novels, that they are almost impossible to define. The most extreme example is the women’s friend, Alfonso, who undergoes a male to female transition so complete that he almost transforms into Lina. And yet, like Italian identity, each personality displays seemingly immutable defining traits. Elena is hard-working and studious and efficient; Lina’s razor-sharp intelligence never fades.

The New York Times Style Magazine

Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?

(…. ) The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.

Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.

And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “The Remains of the Day,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.

The Guardian

Elena Ferrante’s Naples – a photo essay

We follow in the (fictional) footsteps of the heroines of My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, into the alleyways, gritty apartment blocks and piazzas of this energetic and fascinating city

by Sophia Seymour. Photographs: Giuseppe Di Vaio

Lenù and Lila, the fictional protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, forge their friendship in a deprived area of Naples, just east of the cacophonous central station. The books follow the girls’ fraught relationship as they navigate the distinct social and economic divides of the city, both railing against and succumbing to the expectations of women as they struggle to be defined by something other than the violence and poverty of their post-war upbringing.

A ground-floor apartment in a working class area of Naples.
  • A ground-floor apartment in a working class area of Naples.

Ferrante maps out in vivid detail every corner of the unnamed “neighbourhood” where they grow up, yet when the characters move into the rest of the city she is meticulous in naming each street and square, allowing Naples to take centre stage as the stories develop. In this way, the success of the novels has seen an unprecedented number of readers from across the world make a pilgrimage to Naples, in search of the raw and gritty side of the city that has traditionally kept visitors away.

The area where the girls grow up is based on working class Rione Luzzatti, which has hardly changed since the 1950s and does seemingly little to defy the city’s much-maligned reputation as a crumbling rogue governed by intimidating forces. However, those intent on discovering the stomping ground of the brilliant heroines will need to abandon preconceptions, ignore warnings of lawless, unruly Neapolitans, and head deep into the underbelly, to the city’s scarcely explored areas. It is here that the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the city reveal themselves, and the real magic of Naples is to be discovered.

Porta Capuana is one of Naples’ old city gates, built by the Aragonese dynasty in 1484.
  • Porta Capuana is one of Naples’ old city gates, built by the Aragonese dynasty and dating back to 1484.

To follow in the footsteps of characters in the four novels, head out of the historic centre on a Dante-esque trip into the Neapolitan underworld. Pass through the vast Aragonese city gates of Porta Capuana, now sitting alone in a square off Via Carbonara, and head into the pulsating heart of O’ Buvero street market.

Naples street markets are a place to experience the energy of the city
  • Naples street markets are a place to experience the energy of the city.

O’ Buvero is a human jumble of activity weaving through the decaying 15th-century palaces of Via Sant’Antonio Abate. It is here that the energy of the city’s street life can truly be experienced, resonating through the neighbourhood and into the cramped flats and echoing stairwells.

O’ Buvero market, Via Sant’Antonio Abate, whose the layout has not changed since the 15th century
O’Buvero market stall holder.
A fruit and vegetable stand in O’ Buvero Market.
This sign says, ‘mopeds and timewasters are forbidden to park here’ and hangs at the entrance to the church of Sant’Antonio Abate.

As you walk through the alleyways, it is impossible not to project the community of characters described in the book on to the market sellers. Stop to buy a bunch of tiny piennolo tomatoes from the equivalent of the Ada Cappuccio character who ran the fruit stall in Ferrante’s Naples, or watch as an Enzo Scanno equivalent loads crates of produce, like Jenga blocks, on to his cart to take back and sell in the neighbourhood.

View from behind the market, with the church of Sant’Antonio Abate in the background.
  • A view of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate from behind the market.

If you were wondering where to find intimidating Solara brother types, striking illicit deals, look out for the men manning blackmarket cigarette stalls, their cartons neatly arranged on tablecloths so that they can be removed in one quick motion at the sight of police.

An illegal cigarette stall.

Deeper into the market, lurid insults filter from above, hurled from window to window by women as they lace the streets with laundry, just like Melina and Lidia squabbling over Donato Sarratore in the first book, My Brilliant Friend. Deals are thrashed out in thick Neapolitan dialect, while Vespas arrive loaded with boxes of broccoli-like friarelli, grown on the slopes of Vesuvius. Through a half-open door you may spot an old boy painting the colourful price tags that decorate the market stalls. Nearby may be a woman leaning out of her street-level apartment, cigarette in hand, waiting for a lighter to be lowered by rope in a basket from a floor above.

Pasquale’s family has been making price tags for the markets across Naples for three generations.
A basket being lowered with a light within.
  • Old world charm: Pasquale’s family has been making price tags for the markets across Naples for three generations. Right; passing a light with a basket.

Exiting the market, up Via Benedetto Cairoli to Corso Garibaldi, you pass a traditional acquafrescaio kiosk, selling sulphuric Telese from Vesuvius, known for its healing and aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps Elena Greco was under the influence of this potent volcanic liquid when she first laid her lustful eyes on the womaniser Nino Sarratore at the nearby high school.

The infamous ‘stradone’, south-west of the Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood.
  • The infamous ‘stradone’, south-west of the Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood.

Take a taxi down the wide Via Taddeo da Sessa – the stradone of the books – with the financial district on the left, and leave behind the market and enter a seemingly less hospitable corner of the city, Rione Luzzatti. Silent women stare out of the barred windows of apartments in the four-storey Fascist-era housing blocks. The flats face on to shared courtyards, lined with grates into basements like the one where Lila threw Lenù’s doll, Tina. Occasionally, the stillness is punctured by schoolchildren tumbling out of the concrete elementary school on Via Marino Freccia for lunch, or the fishmonger whistling down the vacant avenues in his three-wheeled Piaggio.

Acqua Telese bought from the Acquafrescaio Kiosk on the corner of the market
  • Telese mineral water on sale at the acquafrescaio kiosk on the corner of the market.
Children run home after school: the elementary school Lenù and Lila would have attended is on the left and the parish church is behind them.
  • Children run home after school. The elementary school Lenù and Lila would have attended is on the left and the parish church is behind them.

It’s worth spending some time exploring, however, as there are a number of reputable establishments around the central square. The basement Pasticciello bakery (Via Vesuvio 3C) has been attracting outsiders to the neighbourhood long before Ferrante’s books came out. It is famous for pagnutiello, a typical Neapolitan street snack made from eggs, ham and cheese, baked in crunchy bread and sold for €1. Signor Spagnuolo – Gigliola’s father – would have baked these as a warm lunch for workmen at the nearby central station.

Il Pasticciello Bakery, Rione Luzzatti.
  • Il Pasticciello bakery, Rione Luzzatti. Below: Lucia and her assistant cracking eggs in the kitchen.
Lucia and her assistant cracking eggs in the kitchen of Il Pasticciello

Down an espresso at Bar Pariso (Via Beato Leonardo Murialdo, on the corner of Piazza Francesco Coppola ), alongside men who, according to Ferrante, spend their time “between gambling losses and troublesome drunkness”. Try a vino sfuso – local aglianico wine dispensed straight from the barrel in a plastic cup – from Marco’s slither of a shop next to the tobacconists on Via Buonocore. Wander through the public gardens where Lila would have taught Elena her Latin verbs and past the Sacra Famiglia parish church, originally built in central Naples in the 15th century before being transported to the rione brick by brick, when the area needed a place of worship.

Il Bar Pariso on the corner of the neighbourhood square.
  • Il Bar Pariso on the corner of the neighbourhood square.

If the bakery’s pagnutiello has your mouth watering, follow the stradone out of the neighbourhood and through the dark, infamous “tunnel with its three entrances” on Via Gianturco where Lila and Lenù skip school and first attempt to leave the neighbourhood to go and see the sea.

The infamous tunnel on Via Gianturco, where Lila and Elena first attempt to leave the neighbourhood.
  • The infamous tunnel on Via Gianturco, where Lila and Elena first attempt to leave the neighbourhood.

Turn right into the slighly more upmarket Case Nuove district for lunch at Pizzeria Carmnella. The pizzaiolo, Vincenzo Esposito, has invented a pizza to celebrate Elena Ferrante, mirroring the dishes served at a traditional Neapolitan Sunday lunch: ragú simmered for 24 hours, ricotta, fiordilatte mozzarella from Agerola on the Amalfi peninsula, grated parmesan and fresh basil.

Pizzeria Carmnella
  • Pizzeria Carmnella: pizza margherita straight from the woodburning oven.
Pizza margherita straight from the woodburning oven on the left in Pizzeria Carmnella.
‘Elena Ferrante’ Pizza on the menu at Pizzeria Carmnella

Not all of Ferrante’s bildungsroman is based in poor neighbourhoods. The life of Elena Greco reaches into the privileged pockets of Via Tasso and the Chiaia district too (as well as to Florence and Milan). Her books expose the Manichean elements of the city, the contrast of lightness and darkness, poverty and wealth, opportunity and hopelessness. So when, after lunch, you hurl across the city in a taxi to where the Solaras sold Lila’s shoes in an upmarket boutique in Piazza Dei Martiri, it feels like crossing a border, moving through tangible social and economic divides.

Ferrante’s characters are astonished by the stark contrast in daily life for richer folk, the orderly manner of things compared with the menacing chaos of the impoverished neighbourhoods. Lenù’s impressions of the Chiaia residents is that they “seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of air”. The change in atmosphere is tangible under the central marble column surrounded by sculpted lions, in the square lined with elegant shops.

Local Neapolitan men.

Follow the line of boutiques up to the top of Via Chiaia and the lavish Gambrinus coffee house on the corner of Piazza Trento e Trieste, where (unlike Ferrante) writers such as Hemingway and Neruda could afford to watch the world go by. As you pass by the familiar chain stores and well-heeled gentry, beware: a longing may set in for the raw and pulsating Naples to the east.

Gambrinus Coffeehouse has been in Piazza Trieste e Trento since 1860, and has always been a meeting point for intellectuals and musicians performing in the San Carlo Opera House opposite. Gigliola drags Elena Greco here for ‘all sorts of things, both salty and sweet’ when they bump into each other on Via Toledo, in the final book.
  • Gambrinus Coffeehouse has been in Piazza Trieste e Trento since 1860, and has always been a meeting point for intellectuals, and for musicians performing in the San Carlo Opera House opposite.

As the writing in the Neapolitan novels attests, Naples is a city of vivid contradictions that summon conflicting emotions of love, loathing, shock and wonder. Searching for Lila Cerullo, the missing protagonist, in the less wealthy areas of the city means encountering Neapolitans who will go out of their way to disprove any negative reputation with the sort of warm, sociable and humble spirit associated with having always felt like the underdog. On the flip side, one can’t but be suspicious of invisible dark forces at play, nepotism and raging inequality. Wandering through the market and into the streets where Lenù and Lila’s friendship blossomed, and crisscrossing the city’s starkly divided neighbourhoods, is like reading the book itself: charged, consuming, and liable to start a lifelong love affair.

Sophia Seymour is a Naples based documentary maker, writer and the founder of Looking for Lila. She curates tours, shoots and events using the Ferrante novels as a frame to explore the city

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The Stanford Daily

The relatable brilliance of ‘My Brilliant Friend’

Anna-Sofia Lesiv, Columnist

When Lena imagines herself in her mind, her actual appearance is not what she pictures. Lena is chubby. Glasses cover her eyes, acne covers her skin. She’s coming of age in a poor and violent suburb of Naples, being hurled towards adulthood, while grasping – as if for a branch in a hurricane – for childhood and a world where time stays still. Adulthood is frightening. It disables like her mother’s limp. It suffocates with the claustrophobia of domesticity and aches with the disappointment of abandoned dreams. Growing up seems, for Lena, what it is for most girls, a winding on of constraints and obligations, an application of social pressure and a submission to its conformity.

Adolescence is the jarring in-between. It’s the time before the substance of our identities hardens into the adults we fear becoming. A present yet fleeting moment of tumult, it offers a final window of hope to shape our lives, our minds, before they ossify into their mature and unchangeable forms.

“My Brilliant Friend” is a journey through the secret thoughts, memories and confessions swirling in Lena’s mind. Paced by the ever-increasing speed of change, the novel exudes uncertainty. At nearly every point in the narrative, Lena is struggling to define her self-worth – and herself. Though she is sought after by boys and praised by teachers, she questions her beauty, her intelligence and her merits. Though she is deeply introspective and thoughtful, she fears being wrong or seeming stupid. Lena’s challenge is Sisyphean, to overcome within herself that which always tells her she is behind. Author Elena Ferrante pours out these insecurities with prose you could drink, but digesting the plight of the young protagonist would be exhausting if it weren’t so acutely familiar.

As a freshman last year, I remember sitting in class with the previous night’s reading whirling in my mind. I had argued over the ideas with my friends last night, ruminated over their meaning. Yet when prompted for questions or comments, my hand stayed resolutely lowered, my mouth steadfastly closed. My piece, which teetered at the tip of my tongue, was knocked off balance by the frenzy of thoughts chasing each other in circles, each one critical of the last. While a hurricane ravaged through my mind, the professor calmly registered the silence and moved on.

Later on, I approached a friend of mine to ask about this phenomenon that followed me from class to class. It felt as if something inside of me were ordering me to stay silent, lest I be wrong, lest my question contain the slightest redundancy. No matter how much I dedicate myself to the material, self-doubt always seemed to creep in. To my surprise, my friend told me that she was experiencing the exact same thing. We resolved that introspecting, overanalyzing, somehow always made us weaker. It set one part of ourselves against another, and left us in a haze, not knowing which “self” to trust.

Like young Lena, we lacked – and perhaps feared – the conviction required to assert our opinions, and thus ourselves. Fearing that we become, inadvertently, what we did not wish to be. Fearing that a false statement might crystallize into a false impression. In general, we just feared.

The world offers a lot for a girl to fear. The threat of violence, abuse, loss of agency or denial of self-fulfillment, all are ominous concerns thumping in the background of “My Brilliant Friend,” and while it’s easy to learn to fear, girls, in particular are much more hard pressed to find models of overcoming it without submitting to artificially mimicking the trope of male supremacy.

On this point, Ferrante offers a brilliant case study. Lila, Lena’s self-assured and powerful friend, doesn’t fear wielding a knife on those who cross her. She dominates with her intellect, and eviscerates all doubt directed at her through forceful outbursts of aggression and merciless cruelty. However, Lila’s extreme displays of courage seem to hint that beneath them lay profound unrest. Midway into her adolescence, she begins experiencing a feeling she calls “dissolving boundaries,” when all around her, people, objects lose their shape and seem but a mass of particles, spilling out of their original forms. The storm of adolescence ravages, leaving nothing behind as it was. Lila’s ambition devolves into doubt, and her courage eventually gives in to fear. She commits herself to provincial life and dismisses the prospect of moving away from her impoverished, lethargic town.

Suppressing self-doubt does not get rid of it, and the contrast between the two friends finally exposes itself in the way the girls respond to self-critique. Whereas Lena grew up and adapted under the constant pressure of crushing self-doubt, for Lila, the shock of finally admitting to such uncertainty, was irreparably destructive.

After reading the first novel in Ferrante’s series, I met with my friend from freshman year once again. She had been reading an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a few days prior that seemed to translate exactly what we felt into a polished jargon, as if our recurring dispositions were legitimate academic methodology. The entry is titled “Epistemic Self-Doubt,” and dubs the state of the split, doubting self, as one of “epistemic akrasia.”

The entry sheds light on what it means to be a constantly self-critiquing and doubting being. It notes that while splitting oneself into two factions is not the most straightforward means of existence, it’s almost not a state of perpetual moral tempest, and by all means, is extremely possible to simply live with. Lena’s not a role model – no one in Ferrante’s books is. She never solves the problem of self-doubt, but she does move forward despite it. Her ability to keep going despite her flaws is her most commendable trait, one that fellow epistemic akrasiacs are wont to take note of.


Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’

Les Nuages


I have read many books throughout the years, from the heavy classics to the lighter page-turners, and I know exactly what I like to read. For me a good book should be both interesting, well written, light and heavy at the same time. Literature should be something enriching for both the soul, the heart and the brain. I love a well-written page-turner. The Italian writer Elena Ferrante writes those books.

I have read many foreign writers, both for some reason not a lot of Italian writers, but since reading Elena Ferrante I have become increasingly interested in the country and it’s culture. Elena Ferrante is an interesting figure, she (if she is a she) has decided to stay anonymous, she has said that her person and her books should be and stay to separate things and that you don’t need to know a writer for you to enjoy a book. Unfortunately, her wish to stay unknown is also the press wish to unravel that secret. Ferrante has since stated that she would not produce any more books if “they” (the publishing firm) decide to reveal her identity.

But to get back to her books, the most famous ones are the Neapolitan Novels. The four book series that tells the becoming of age story of two girls Elena and Lila growing up in Naples, from the 50’s to today. It’s a story of girls becoming women, but also about a city that is, in my sense, the principal character of the book. Naples is violent, hard, poor but also extremely fascinating. The books are extremely well written, there is everything from love to politics. After reading the books, you feel like you have lived their lives, you travel through Italy’s story and you grow up with them. These books are truly the most realistic and gripping books, I have read in a long time. And have you already read the four books, I can also recommend Ferrante’s other books. The themes of the female struggle, Naples, family are recurrent.



When I first came across My Brilliant Friend, oblivious to Ferrante Fever, in a local bookshop, the title simply intrigued me. Who was this brilliant friend? It was a terrific title.

After abandoning a few dud novels, I was excited to pick up Elena Ferrante’s book because I could tell from the first page that she was an author in control of her craft. Unfortunately, due to my short attention span as a millennial, I put the novel aside after reading the first few chapters. I had a hard time keeping up with the flurry of characters introduced in the beginning. It didn’t help that some characters have multiple names (Lila is also called Raffaela and Lina), and some of the names rhymed: Gino, Nino, Rino.

I missed the old me, pre-social media, when I was able to plow through a thick classic from Dickens or a Brontë sister without getting distracted. I was disappointed in myself for not giving a proper chance to a writer who wrote so well, so I forced myself to pick up the book again months later. Good thing I did. Once I got familiar with the characters, I couldn’t put this book down.

In fact, I found myself reading every spare second that I got. I was back to the old bookworm me again, my nose in a book at all times, and it felt great. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the 4-book Neapolitan Novels, about the lifelong friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, the protagonist. For a few weeks in the spring, this series consumed my life. I was emotionally invested. More than I few times I wanted to throw a book against a wall because I was angry at a character, some event that occurred, or due to the masochistic life decisions of the protagonist.

Elena Ferrante is a pen name and very few people know who she is, although some nosy peeps have desperately tried to find out. Ferrante is an Italian writer from Naples, most likely in her 70s. I don’t need to know more. If she wants to stay anonymous to feel comfortable writing with sincerity and truth, we need to respect it, do the literary world a favour, and let her.

Her descriptions of Naples are so vivid I’m there, postwar, with her, and her characters are so real that I had to tweet about my reaction to one character and was gratified to know I wasn’t the only one who hated this dude with a passion. Yes, you will hate him too.

Ferrante Fever is a thing—there’s even a documentary about it now. People around the world are obsessed. HBO is making a mini-series. As I was reading, I was trying to figure it how Ferrante did it—how did she make the minutiae feel so explosive? Talent like this does not come very often.

As for the controversy over the book covers, people need to get over it. Some are offended because they feel the books deserve more than women’s fiction covers. I think they’re fine. The book is written by a woman, the story is about two complex women, and the publishing house wants to target female readers. Why should “masculine” or “gender neutral” covers equal respectable literary fiction? How many novels by male authors are read by women even when the covers are “masculine”? I think people need to rethink the fact that books with girly covers are automatically not deserving of literary praise. Ferrante’s book covers are helping in this regard—training people to look beyond the covers. If I’d passed on certain books because I didn’t like the covers, I would have missed out on a lot of good reads.

I still haven’t said anything about the plot of this book, aside from the fact it is about two friends. I’ll just say that by the end of the series, it’s still not clear who is the brilliant friend.

The first book covers their lives from childhood to adolescence. Read the books, get obsessed, and get back to me on what you think.

The Guardian

The American novelist on the books that changed his life, made him cry and the ones he wishes he’d written

The book I wish I’d written

I aborted a third novel, and it’s interesting (for about five seconds) to imagine what I would have produced had I soldiered on through to the end of it. I might have liked to do groundbreaking work such as Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but why would I want Murakami and Ferrante not to have written those books themselves?

The Student Newspaper

The Neapolitan Novels – Elena Ferrante

BBC Radio 4

Seven European bestsellers you should read in 2017

The wonderful thing about being a reader is that even when you’re familiar with the classics of English literature, there are still bookshelves all over the world to explore. These writers, featured in Radio 4’s Reading Europe series, are some of the most famous novelists in their own countries – but the rest of the world has yet to discover them.

Here’s why you should read them.

Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Ferrante fever has been sweeping Europe for the past few years, and reached a fever pitch when journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have “unmasked” the reclusive author. However, fans remain more interested in her novels than her life stories. In My Brilliant Friend, we’re introduced to Elena and Lila, whose friendship is one of the most believable in fiction – they’re not braiding each other’s hair at sleepovers, they’re jealously competing to escape the neighbourhood of Naples and trying to avoid the attentions of local gangsters.

Look out for: Lila’s wedding – it’s so tense and troubling that it makes the wedding sequence in The Godfather look like it was guest directed by Richard Curtis.