I really, really liked Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is an incredibly blase way to compliment a book so raw and confrontational and, well, brilliant. The remaining three books in the Neapolitan Novels series build on the strong momentum established by the first and, in the process, continue to be some of the most poignant reading I’ve experienced in ages. The feelings that these books provoked in me were strong and visceral, inflamed and tender in their ebb and flow. These are not feel-good stories, but they don’t feel gratuitous in their misery, either. As a woman, my vicarious anger has an undercurrent of resignation, because each injustice and pointed strike at Lila and Elena — the character — (but also, all of the other Neapolitan women in the books) rings a little too true to feel like emotional manipulation.
Taking place from the 1950’s all the way through the 2010’s, beyond coming of age into mature adulthood, the series chronicles the personal and professional achievements and failures of two very intelligent women who are both products of their time, but who also rise above the expectations of the era and of the microculture in their misogynistic, violent Naples neighborhood. For all that they are exceptional, though, the neighborhood has indelibly tagged them. Lila, despite her potential, is never able to leave, while Elena, despite a fancy education and a high-class marriage, is still condescended to because of her background, never allowed to forget how she is different.
The Story of a New Name takes place immediately after Lila’s marriage to the neighborhood grocer, the young man in charge of one of only two of the neighborhood’s prosperous families. Getting bogged down in the details of the plot of each book is kind of missing the point, so I will try to avoid doing it, but I mention the marriage because this is the single moment that changes the two women’s lives. It is the first and most concrete piece of evidence that the lives they are “meant” to have, as women, are not for them. Lila begins chafing at her vows and new identity (her new name) before the ceremony is even over, and the rest of this installment is, for her, about how she struggles to carve out necessary freedoms for herself, both inside and outside of her marriage. Meanwhile, Elena has left the neighborhood to attend secondary school and university. Academically, there is no denying her talent, but she has what we would, now, instantly identify as impostor syndrome, in spades, and she is nearly undone on multiple occasions by a crippling sense of inauthenticity. When she speaks among her educated friends, she always feels like she is pretending at intelligence, only hiding her poor vulgarity; when she as at home in Naples she simultaneously desires to impress with her accomplishments and be accepted as one of them, unchanged. It’s the story of moving within of two communities, but not truly being a part of either.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a masterful thesis on the feminist axiom “the personal is the political.” It puts a point on the inseparable bond between the women’s professional endeavors and the sociopolitical mores they engage with. Discovering feminism in an official capacity, Elena incisively observes the relationships between women and men in her writing and is struck by the messiness of applying what should be clear-headed logic on the subject to her own relationships with men. As much as this book is about Elena and Lila’s marriages and families, though, it is still at its core very much about the friendship between the two women. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, it is an undeniably strained relationship, but the strength in their bond is something beyond amiable appeasement and shared interests. There is something deeper and more elemental that binds them. At times, you wonder why they still bother being friends, with the various trespasses, minor and otherwise, that they commit against each other. But Elena is forcefully inspired by Lila; she’s an unyielding, driving specter in Elena’s creative mind and she represents the well of genius that Elena is only able to access when she’s at her most honest and candid.
A notable condition of the second and third books is that Elena and Lila are separated, so a lot of what Elena reports about Lila’s life is second-hand information, information she finds out much later and is writing in retrospect, or information that was taken straight from a diary that Lila gives Elena for “safekeeping.” This all worked for me to keep Lila involved in the story and to keep Elena connected to her, but finally in The Story of the Lost Child the women are together again, living in Naples. The official reunion is ostensibly a happy one, but many of their interactions remain terse. Elena, who has always written from the perspective of someone who is constantly compared to her friend and found wanting, now feels increasingly compelled to justify herself and her choices to Lila in the flesh. Raising their children together, Elena struggles with how, despite their wildly different paths, they have still ended up in the same place. She interrogates the decisions that led her, a moderately successful woman with her own notoriety, to still have been so moved by men that her and Lila, now both raising children as single women, appear on the surface level to have minimized themselves and their ambitions so to remain comfortably in the neighborhood, just as all of the other girls without the same intelligence and drive did. It’s too reductive to say that it’s merely sad, or disappointing, that Elena winds up where she did, or that Lila’s growing position in the neighborhood seems to come at the direct expense of Elena’s current popularity as an author, as if they sit on opposite ends of a see-saw and one is always looking down on the other if either of them is to be much off the ground.
Ferrante’s character Elena is a writer, and she writes a lot of this meta-criticism about the flaws in her writing. Primarily, despite Elena’s formal education surpassing Lila’s by several stages, Elena attributes to Lila’s writing an unparalleled quality of natural brevity. Elena is always struck by her own writing having a false affect, while revering the clarity of Lila’s unstudied prose as the epitome of skill. As a reader, I’m struck by Ferrante’s skill with language, and — with this feeling possibly being magnified by Ferrante being a pseudonymous author, and wondering how much of this work is auto/biographical — I can’t help but notice that the lauded qualities of Lila’s writing appear to more or less describe Ferrante’s. (Or Elena’s voice, as depicted by Ferrante. How meta is this exactly? Is this Ferrante suggesting that Elena more successfully adopted those attributes of her friend’s writing than she gave herself credit for? Or that it was Elena herself whose writing had those characteristics, but her bouts of inferiority blinded her to it? Or is it Ferrante, herself, at the top line, voicing her authorial insecurities through her character?) In any case, the writing is magnificent. As I’ve seen it said, the pages practically turn themselves. The language is frugal but expansive inside the reader’s mind — a true case of “leaving it to the imagination.” I’m continually astonished at how much Ferrante does with so little, syntactically.
If you weren’t put off by this unhelpfully vague review, I urge you to read these books. I have tried to touch on a few reasons why I find them so excellent, but even more than those definable things there is just something about them overall that makes them unforgettable.