ASAP Journal

The Function of Pettiness at the Present Time / Sarah Blackwood & Sarah Mesle

“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.

—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator


In a famous formulation, Matthew Arnold described criticism as “the best that is known and thought in the world.” Arnold’s words here imply a sense of progress, publicness, hierarchy—that, by bringing ideas to light, we can test and evaluate, mutually agree upon, their “bestness.” Arnold’s articulation remains a useful standard; even as much modern criticism has moved beyond or against his broader ideas about what’s good or “best,” criticism’s basic structure of evaluative argument still remains central to academic life and exchanges. And yet, this structure, it seems, cannot hold many forms of knowledge. What if a text, a series of novels, say, generates knowledge and experiences that can’t be contained within the consensus making world of criticism or that comes to knowledge from a felt sense, hard to describe or explain? What if you come to know something about a text that you can only share at great cost, or simply don’t want to share? What if you know something about a text because of something dark, bad, shameful, or unacceptable, that you know about yourself?

In this essay we assert that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels turn us towards other modes of engagement: not the best that might be thought, but, in fact, the pettiest. Part of what we love about the books is that they are about people—particularly the critic Lenù—coming to understandings of the world that they can’t put up for evaluation. These are good books about people acting badly, most often in variously petty ways. Reading these novels about bad feeling has made us feel good. But reading evaluative criticism about them has made us feel, strangely, bad. We have found in the case of the Neapolitan novels, that the border between our thinking and feeling became even more vexed and blurry than usual. By thinking in this essay through the good and bad feelings the novels contain, describe, and generate, we hope to come to a clearer understanding of our own sense of the possibilities and limits of criticism, as it applies to these novels, and to our lives as critics, in this fraught present time more generally.

1: Pettiness

What does it mean to call something petty, or to be petty yourself? Pettiness has to do with being out of scale. We might understand pettiness as a relation between attention and object of attention: you are being petty when a small or seemingly irrelevant detail generates disproportionate irritation; you are also being petty when irritation leads you to pay disproportionate attention to a small detail.

This petty state is often where we found ourselves in response to much criticism about the Neapolitan novels. Something about it irritated us. Criticism about these novels felt inadequate to the largeness of our feeling and thinking about these novels. The only talk about Ferrante we liked was private, non-argumentative. The critical takes, the arguments about authorship, the interpretive discussions placing the novels in various literary contexts and genealogies: all of it, bizarrely for people who passionately do critical work for a living, seemed mostly useless and entirely missing of the point. However: what was the point we so felt everyone else was missing? And why was it all so irritating?

Part of the problem, of course, is the Neapolitan novels’ popularity and their ability to generate, basically, a fandomwhen an object lives in your fanatical heart, it can be irritating to find it discussed, analyzed, praised elsewhere. It is irritating because it is irritating to discover that your heart is not the only place where that object’s truth might be revealed.

Another possibility is that the irritation is a historical symptom. The years of Ferrante fever in the United States have coincided with the collapse of things more generally—politically, psychologically, informationally. We exist in a state now where the ability to demonstrate or assert what is “best that is known” is under particular stress. It’s clear that criticism in our present time—the best that is known, consensual knowledge—has a vital role.

And yet the collapse that makes criticism urgent has another side effect too: it makes us crabby. And thus a variety of other forms of knowing and interpreting—gossip, subtweets, textspeak, side eye, backchannels—strike us as also, at the present time, particularly useful. These petty modes are insufficient to the role of understanding either literature or our present, and yet they are still, we would claim, necessary. At the very least, as we will show, they are necessary to a fuller understanding of the Neapolitan novels. The novels’ pettiness is substantive and specific; they are an expression of petty feeling all the way down.

The question the novels seek to answer—what happened to Lenù’s friendship with Lila?—is not a critical question; what went wrong is not a matter of reason or clarity.  For what would it mean to evaluate a friendship in terms of “the best that is known?” How, in friendship, literature, and politics, do we evaluate what’s good, what’s interesting, what helps and what hurts? What standards guide our judgements, where do the standards come from, and whose power do they support or undercut?

Lenù is a critic and a novelist, and yet neither of those modes of writing or evaluation have helped her answer the most urgent questions she has. For Lenù, criticism is not even an objective mode of evaluation: instead, it manifests narratively mostly as a series of bad boyfriends and bad moms, counterweighted for a while, Nancy Meyer-ishly, by increasingly nice apartments. In other words, as a life.

2: Backchannels

The Neapolitan novels are about marriage, women’s friendship, creative life, and politics. Although Lenù has built her adult life out of writing in and for publics, the prose we are reading seems deeply private: it is the material she cannot share with the world around her. It is significant that the content of the novels—an exploration of a specific friendship under conditions of poverty and patriarchy—takes a form that we might describe as a “backchannel” between Lenù and the reader. Backchannels in our contemporary world run the gamut from geopolitical intrigue to bitching with friends: Jared Kushner emailing furtively with Russian politicians, but also the more everyday flows of information in secret Facebook groups, DMs, gossipy texts. They are a place where people put knowledge they are not supposed to share; express irritation about things that are not supposed to irritate them; and indulge hysterics over things that are not supposed to be funny. In backchannels you reveal the aspects of yourself—aspects that feel unlikely to be legitimated by a wider public—to the people you believe are already on your side. Essential to this form, too, is the response it assumes: agreement and, crucially, reciprocity. Putting your worst or most outrageous self, your secrets, in a backchannel anticipates that the reader will reflect their illegitimate selves, their secrets, back to you.

If we think of the novels as backchannels, we can imagine them as bringing to light the question of what “can’t” be brought to light, and why. The novels are soul-baring but in an intimate, secretive, whispering sort of way, and they elicit intimate, secretive conversation in us, their readers. Lenù is telling us things about herself that she does not want to be known. So what is lost in responding to this voice in the idiom of criticism? Because criticism’s task is so fully on the side of illumination, publics, consensus, it seems categorically to violate the intimate mode the novels’ form both takes and encourages us to inhabit. Criticism’s idiom is optimism—the idea that, even in critique, it can produce new knowledge, better understanding. The backchannel’s idiom, to the contrary, in its expectation of the reciprocation of illegitimate knowledge and feeling, is pettiness.

Let’s consider one moment that illuminates how the novels understand the intersection of petty feelings, politics, evaluative consensus, and the backchannel form. Home for Christmas at a time she initially considers a pinnacle of her life, Lenù’s daughters lead their husbands and boyfriends over to the bookshelf and take down her books. They read them aloud, “ironically,” and laugh with one another over their mother’s self-seriousness, her prose’s belief that it might change the world. Their critical pettiness is hurtful, of course, but the true pain comes from the fact that Lenù recognizes some truth about herself in their insufficiently private backchannel. Overhearing them laugh about her books, Lenù realizes that her entire critical and creative life might be “reduced merely to a petty battle to change [her] social class.”

In this moment, crucially, Lenù cares less that her daughters are being petty gossips and more about the prospect that not only her creative work but also her politics have been small and wrong because they focused too particularly on her life rather than on substantive social change. While writing about the politics of literature, she has in fact mostly been focused on herself and her own comforts.

While it might be a surprise to Lenù to discover the pettiness of her own ambitions, it is not surprising to us: by this point in the series, we have spent many pages in close company with Lenù’s petty, selfish emotions, the petty details of her daily life. We have cheered on her petty battle to improve her life in any limited way that she can, just as we are invited not to condemn her daughters for their pettiness toward their mother. The novels succeed in being generous toward their characters’ bad acting not despite but because the novels pay close attention to details, because, in fact, they celebrate, out-of-scale attention. Dwelling in pettiness is how the novels generate their pleasure. They invite us to respond with our own out-of-scale fears, irritations, and concerns, rather than with our big-picture understanding.

3: Scale

Consider, for example, how Ferrante structures her novels to insist on the narrative force of small details. Lila’s marriage is over at its beginning because she focuses, obsessively, on a profoundly “trivial” detail: the sociopathic Marcello Solara shows up at her wedding wearing shoes she had made by hand, which he had long pursued and she had long refused to give or sell to him. What’s more, she realizes, her new husband Stefano is the one who has given them to him. Lila’s white hot rage over this detail is out of proportion, most others in her community agree—Stefano, the Solara brothers, even Lila’s brother all encourage her to look at the big picture, to give up caring about this small thing so that a larger social and economic prosperity can be secured. But we readers see the situation more clearly: the shoes are the big picture—they are her art, the “small” thing she thought she could keep out of the marriage market even as she consented to its broader practice. The novel emphasizes this interpretation to us by treating the discovery of the stolen shoes as a cliffhanger, meriting the weight of the whole first novel’s concluding sentence. And the men know this too, know that the shoes are of great significance, even as they speciously urge her to not be petty.

Lila cannot let the drama of the shoes go because the shoes’ significance is one of the only forms of power she has: we would call her exercise of this power “sideways,” a way of grasping for small, satisfying but rarely honorable victories inside a conscripted life. Denied, by virtue of gender and class, official means of social power, she engages in a sort of social guerrilla warfare.

Our sense has been that the pleasure of the novels comes from its petty details, but that criticism demands a sort of direct frontal interpretive attack that is counter to both the sideways power the novels describe and praise, and to our readerly experience of them. Criticism does often make space for trying to understand “sideways power”—as subversion, as critique, as counter-narrative. But, we would argue, once elevated and illuminated by criticism, conscripted and sideways power can suddenly look ennobling when, really, it very much is not.

The novels’ frank interest in its characters as dishonorable bad actors set within an even more dishonorable and bad-acting social world, its attention to the pettiness and petty details this scenario generates, is what makes us love them. The Neapolitan novels are the 1500 pages that Lenù writes to herself, to us, when all the other ways she has of communicating—direct political writing, literary criticism, even literature—have become dissatisfying to her. The novels are the place where she puts her pettiness: they are her secret Facebook group, the corner into which she has been backed and from which she speaks. What would it mean, as critics, to join her there?

4. Refusal

There seemed to us, thus, to be a mismatch between the novels’ dissatisfaction with public writing and the act of publicly writing about them. As critics tried—in essays, even in Facebook threads—to fit their encounters with the novels’ pettiness into critical forms, the pettiness lost its vitality, was in fact called out as petty, which was, in our experience, irritating.

We tried to scratch the itch of our irritation in our own writing about the Neapolitan novels. It’s only now, thinking through our motivating questions about pettiness, that we’ve realized how our critical modes shadowed the content of the novels: they are somewhat bad-acting, ignoble refusals. Refusals to engage in the productive, consensus-building arguments of criticism, refusals to consider the big picture, refusals to elevate ourselves beyond our petty complaints.

Our goal, we realize now, was to create in readers the irritation we were experiencing: the irritation of having an insight or objection that could not be spoken within criticism’s evaluative rules of play. We wanted to make polemic claims without making argumentative ones—that is, we wanted to make arguments while making it difficult or impossible for anyone to argue with or against us. We wanted to say something that asserted itself as the best without subjecting itself to the test of bestness.

Consider our claim that “taste is just another name for misogyny.” We made this assertion in a listicle of sorts that we created to express our deep love for the Neapolitan novels’ infamously trashy book covers. Rendered in pastels, featuring imagery seemingly drawn straight from the Christian women’s romance section of the bookstore, the book covers, everyone seemed to agree, were at odds with the rigor and insight of the novels themselves.

Our essay sought to interrupt what seemed to be a consensus opinion that the covers were, obviously, “bad.” But we didn’t want to argue that they were, in fact, “good.” We wanted to poke at what we maintain are the misogynistic value claims about good and bad taste. Critics seemed to agree, no matter where they were writing, that the “cheesy romance novel” quality of the covers was antithetical to good writing, good thinking, or even a good account of anarchic emotional life (and thus that if the covers had any merit, it was ironic, still buying into the same standards of taste). Yet, we argued, this was wrong. We wrote:

the Neapolitan novels, which are about poor women with restricted access to education (and the class mobility that aesthetic taste enables), look like books that might be sold to poor women with restricted access to education. Note that literati readers love to identify with the characters, Lila and Lenù, who are women who use reading to escape their lives. So why are we so unwilling to consider ourselves to be anything like the women who are Lila and Lenù’s real world reading counterparts? Why are we so determined to stand against their reading practices and aesthetic tastes?

Our answer to this question is what we’d like to focus on here:

This sentence stages our most polemic claim—“taste is just another name for internalized misogyny”—as a truth claim at the foundation of an argument rather than the argument itself. More, the claim can’t hold, argumentatively: it is out of scale with itself. It contains a multitude of debatable assumptions about how taste, culture, gender, and even psychology work, yet we were uninterested in debating any of them. Because the very fact of having to debate them, carefully, with evidence and expertise, dissipates the deep feelings—of love, of irritation—that the covers cause us to feel and, importantly, what the discussion of the covers lead us to know but to know other than through agreed upon standards of argument. The knowledge, here, came from the accrued feeling of living for years in a world that finds a pastel aesthetic distasteful. Criticism’s carefulness would defuse the power of experience behind this claim.

Our second essay on Ferrante simply asserted, over and over, that men (all men)—after one specific man outed Elena Ferrante’s real identity—should shut up, just shut up, about Ferrante “forever, or at least for this week.” Where the piece about the book covers at least gestured toward the possibility of an argument, this essay refuses argumentative structure in the most fundamental way. Where the piece about the book covers made a deliberately broad polemic claim about how misogyny shapes taste, this piece instead makes a deliberately impossible claim and supports it only with a shrug and an exclamation point: “Sorry!”

The satisfaction of writing a piece like this is difficult to overstate. The exposure of Ferrante—and particularly the smug tone that exposure took—was something that made us angry, and yet writing an essay explaining why would not have resolved that feeling, partly because to write that essay would have been to enter into an argumentative exchange that would simply elicit more of the writing that angered us in the first place. Instead, our goal was to make a context in which even well-meaning exchange was disabled.

And, it seems, many others felt this way as well: the piece was a tremendous success by a couple of metrics. Its page views and audience reach showed that it resonated, and that it resonated partly because it did something so entirely different from the many argumentative claims cultural critics jumped to articulate in the week after the explosive unveiling of Ferrante’s identity.

We might also measure the forcefulness of its impact in another way, one that we hope shows that we are not making an ideological or political claim about the positive value of this mode of writing: it’s the only thing we’ve ever run in Avidly that ever provoked a rape threat.

What to do with this, we really don’t know—would a clearer argument, more engagement, have prevented the rape threat? Probably not. But it does seem clear that something about the shamelessness of how the original piece made an unsupportable claim, the refusal to inhabit “legitimate” modes of exchange, is part of what provoked it.

5. Women

From pettiness to rape threats, obviously the underlying concern of this essay has been how gendered experience shapes criticism. Despite the fact that scholarship has worked for decades to describe how gender enters into criticism, it remains an unresolved question, and we would posit that this may be because the form of criticism itself disallows admission of the emotional experience in which gender most forcefully resides. Claiming that gender is an emotional experience is not at all to deny that is also an embodied, interpretive, and economic one—instead it is to say that all these conditions combine to generate an emotional state, and that often the state of those who fall under the sign “woman,” and who seek to speak about that experience, is one primarily of irritation: not quite a wound, but a rawness. (Perhaps that’s why so many of us spend so much money on salves.)

Criticism would agree that misogyny is omnipresent and yet rarely makes space for the sort of sweeping claims that might capture the irritated experience that such omnipresence generates—for example, criticism cannot (and this is not only a weakness) hold the claim that taste is only internalized misogyny, even though the omnipresence of internalized misogyny makes that claim feel true, and the feeling is politically and critically necessary if we are to capture the experience of gender. The Neapolitan novels feel weirdly capacious to us because they have allowed space for ugly feelings to exist, and importantly not only in their fictional depiction. One thing that this ugliness has allowed us is new purchase on the experience of reading, interpreting, and practicing criticism as women. It seems to us, personally, and as women, that to love these novels is to hate how most everyone else talks, argues, and makes claims about them. In fact, to love these novels, as women, might be to hate everyone; that hate might be one of the best (yet still limited) tools we have to understand how gender continues, obstinately, to shape individuals’ entrance into interpretation.

Because obviously these books are gendered, are about gender, are written through, read in, and talked about in a condition of gender. This is difficult to talk about, because gender too is all petty differences. When we leave pettiness for criticism, we feel a pressure to transcend gender’s petty differences into a space where interpretation and meaning can be debated, discussed, and agreed upon. But the thing that’s just true—this is another sweeping, untenable, and necessary claim—is that women lose more, and have more to lose, in that space.

One thing that they lose, often, is their petty experiences of womanhood, which could also be (but so rarely is) called “knowledge.” What we “know” about these novels, what we glean about how, for instance, they bind the life of the mind to the fucked-up-ness of the marriage plot, has to do with the fact that we read and think and write about them from a world still largely dictated by the fucked-up-ness of the marriage plot—a plot which in our current moment inscribes ever more lives. What we know about what the novels say about labor, writing, friendship, and political movements comes similarly from personal, and often unflattering or uncomfortable, knowledge accrued through women’s just-below-the-radar-of-legitimacy experience.

Here it is worth saying that “woman” is obviously a troubling category. 2017 is a year when the world has emphasized both how radically women are vulnerable as women, with pussies to be grabbed, and also has made the violence that white, straight, middle-class women do to others crystal fucking clear. (Trump’s voting block depended precisely upon the pettiness of white women.) Further, we can’t even use the word “woman” without mobilizing a language that is inherently false, and heterosexist, in its understanding of what it means to be human. Perhaps “woman” is a word that should have no force in criticism. Many people think this, and we see their point.

Yet we—we, the writers of this piece—are uncomfortable with the way this formulation allows human knowledge, here literary criticism, to hopscotch yet again over the responsibility to understand the particularities of women’s experiences, in the way that science and medicine and economics and history often have done. (Here we are reminded of Virginia Woolf’s repeated quests in A Room of One’s Own to learn about the history of women: returning to the shelves of knowledge again and again, she finds hundreds of years of nothing there.)

And more, we think of Lila, in the Neapolitan novels, speaking in public about the abuse and harassment experienced in the factory, and the sexual form it takes for women, and then facing, in private, Enzo’s well-meaning concern: does this happen to you? he asks. Admitting the forcefulness of woman as a sign, here, its universality, would be for Lila tantamount to taking on another womanly task: comforting men who, like Matthew McConaughey looking mournfully at pictures of rape victims in True Detective, are burdened with the difficulty of living as men in a world where men do, over and over, such terrible things to women. We love Lila for being too tired to give a shit. Exhausted, she lies to Enzo: oh no, nothing untoward ever happens to her at her workplace, just because she’s a woman, just because it happens to every woman. Nope: everything is fine.

This is the tension of the sign of “woman”: that it is out of scale, simultaneously universal and particular, simultaneously useful and an obstacle, outmoded. We have to talk about it, and yet can’t: the reasons we can’t are always already undone by the misogynistic structures that adhere white women to patriarchy and also give a gendered form to the basic selfish pettiness of the human, beyond gender. Gender has never been the “best that is known or thought.” This has historically almost always been a problem for criticism. And yet in the Neapolitan novels, it is also an opportunity.

6: The Present Time

The Neapolitan novels, in form and content, necessitated for us a consideration of pettiness: of how pettiness, gender, criticism, and politics interact. By way of conclusion, we’d note another sphere where pettiness’s forceful ambivalent power seems necessary to consider: the election of Trump, the world’s pettiest candidate, over Hillary Clinton, a candidate who (because she is a woman, rather than for her questionable politics) was evaluated in the most petty way.

The number of ways pettiness infused the 2016 election are legion and beyond our scope here (although it’s worth considering Hillary as a sort of real world analog of the Ferrante covers). We’d like to mention just one: how this campaign illustrated not just how much the world hates women speaking in public but how much the world hates, even, women speaking, in private, to one another. Hillary’s email backchannel was the issue that lost the election: America decided that it would rather give a sociopath the nuclear codes than endure the fact of two women, Hillary and Huma, talking to each other: about what? Privately sharing recipes for quiche?

This is a petty account of the 2016 election, and nevertheless a true one. Democracy, like criticism, relies on a belief in evaluative meritocracy, and the secret talk of women (and other marginalized groups) shows the limits of this belief.

In speaking about pettiness we are not making a value claim: we are making a significance claim. Pettiness is important, but it is not necessarily good. It is not, as we have said, ennobling. Terrible people use it to terrible ends; brilliant people use it to brilliant ends. But assuming that pettiness is something that critics can “get over” on their way to “knowledge” is a mistake, and it is partly a mistake because “getting over pettiness” repeats the very political, often misogynistic, blindness it aims to reveal. In a better world maybe we wouldn’t need pettiness. But that seems not to be where we live.

Pettiness is a strategy used by many different people who must scavenge for legitimacy at the boundaries of “the best that is known and thought.” It’s useful not just for “women,” but also it is useful for “women,” and particularly for understanding the small and distasteful categories of gendered experience still rarely countenanced in traditions of criticism. In the places where criticism about categories of sex and gender are carried out—seminar rooms, lecture halls—the caretaking labor of ordering snacks, vacuuming, and finding ziplock bags for the graduate students to take home leftovers reveal structures that are powerfully gendered, raced, and classed. These are acts that produce and reproduce the contexts where criticism can take place, and yet like most reproductive experience (biological and social) goes irritatingly unnoticed.

Getting back to the questions that have animated our inquiry—But what was the point that others were missing? And why was it all so irritating?—we might now answer simply, and more than a little elliptically, that the irritation itself was the point everyone else was missing. Here were these novels that delivered an avalanche of petty details about living under patriarchy, and thematized the failure of evaluative criticism to soothe these irritations. The novels represented these huge, often traumatic, things—rape, loss, poverty, abuse, marriage, friendship—through a sort of particularized, petty dailiness that was revelatory because it was so true to the grinding quality of these experiences. And, more, the novels suggested that this irritation wasn’t something to be gotten over on the way to producing the best of what has been thought in the world, but rather the thing that makes for better, more honest readers of relationships, art, truth, and the world.

The unattractiveness of the novels’ irritations, their details, the stinginess of them, infuses us with a kind of ecstatic bitterness that is the opposite of consensus making or persuasion. It is aligned with the lived-ness of gender, with the deauthorization of all those whose lives never stand as common sense. This bitterness reminds us that it is always a privilege to have the luxury of leaving pettiness behind.


This is the third in a quartet of essays on Elena Ferrante’s writing. See also the firstsecond, and fourth essays in the quartet, by Christina Lupton, Pamela Thurschwell, and David Kurnick, respectively.

Sarah Blackwood & Sarah Mesle
Sarah Blackwood (PhD, Northwestern) is Associate Professor of English at Pace University. With Sarah Mesle, she is the co-founder and co-editor of Avidly and the forthcoming short book series from NYU Press, Avidly Reads. She’s finishing a book about nineteenth-century portraiture and inner life, and has published scholarly essays on nineteenth-century literature and art in American LiteratureMELUS, and elsewhere. She’s written for The Awl and Los Angeles Review of Books, and currently writes a column about motherhood and literature for The Hairpin.

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is Senior Editor at Large at the Los Angeles Review of Books and Assistant Professor (Teaching) at USC. With Sarah Blackwood, she is the co-founder and co-editor of Avidly and the forthcoming short book series from NYU Press, Avidly Reads. She has written about gender and popular culture for venues ranging from Studies in American Fiction to InStyle Magazine. You can follow her on twitter.

Cannonball Read

The Review of the Great Books

The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #2-4) by Elena Ferrante

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.


 Sarah Begley
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante (2014 U.S.)
In the third installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, childhood best friends Lenu and Lila have made choices that led them down very different paths: Lenu went to college and has a burgeoning career as a respected writer, while Lila has separated from an abusive husband and works in a sausage factory. Yet even in such disparate milieux, the competition between the women never lets up.


The Third Neapolitan Novel Ended How?! A (Spoiler-Filled) Reaction to Ferrante

By Phoebe Maltz Bovy

The first and second Neapolitan novels inspired me to write fiction of my own. The third had the opposite effect: If Elena Ferrante can write that well, why bother?

It’s hard for me to say whether Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is better than the previous two installments, or whether the issue was that reading the first two, I’d imagined I was reading semi-autobiographical fiction. This time around, however, I was reading after the revelations about the real person behind the pseudonym. Knowing that this was all invention is awe-inspiring. When I imagined the author was a real-life mix of close friends Elena and Lila, I was impressed but not, evidently, to the why-bother level.

But maybe the book really just is that good. It contains the best description of terrible sex in probably all of literature, followed by… I will just direct you to the last sentence of Chapter 62.

Now, the spoiler-filled bit:

After a brief interlude in more recent times, Those Who Leave picks up where the previous book left off: with Elena’s sudden ascent from impoverished Neapolitan child for whom attending middle school borderline miraculous, to celebrated novelist. The reader may anticipate an upward trajectory. In a very literal, physical sense there is one – the book ends with Elena on her first-ever airplane trip. But otherwise, not so much: She goes from celebrated young author of a risqué first novel to frustrated housewife in the Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary mold. Not all at once – there’s her stint as a politically engaged labor reporter – but she has one child, then another (earlier than she would like; her her supposedly secular husband opposes contraception), and home responsibilities pile up as professional successes wane. She’s got more material comforts than she did as a child, but is – after all that education, after a successful novel – occupied with household chores.

Meanwhile, Lila – of course Lila! – is at first doing terribly, struggling to support her (possibly) out-of-wedlock son while working at a sausage factory. Elena swoops in and rescues her from a job that’s made her ill and subjected her to intense sexual harassment… but by the end of the novel, Lila’s the great success, with a high paid computer job, while Elena’s all outtakes from The Feminine Mystique.

What’s most interesting about all the novels is (again, of course) the Lila-Elena relationship. But a close second is all that Nino business. Nino is that rare thing: a childhood crush who remains alluring into adulthood. But more than that, he’s deeply entangled with Elena’s other loves: Lila (who was his lover, and who may have born his child), and professional ambition as a writer. The Lila aspect isn’t all that explored, at least in Book 3 – early on in the book, Nino tells Elena that Lila had been bad in bed, but that’s almost it.

By the time he reappears in the novel, Nino could pretty much come into Elena and her dull husband Pietro’s living room, fart loudly, and she’d run off with him. He’s Nino, the hot intellectual ladies’ man. (Everything’s exciting when he’s around and empty when he’s not and Nino Nino Nino, sigh.) But that’s not what he does! No, Nino seduces Elena (if one can call it that, given her preexisting decades-long infatuation, this despite his liaison with her best friend) by appealing to her professional ambition. He does some swooping in of his own and declares – and he’s not wrong – that Pietro has asked to much of Elena in the domestic sphere, putting his own work first and leaving her to squander her (superior, Nino notes, again accurately) intellect.

So on the one hand, Nino sees Elena’s marriage for what it is, and appeals to her resentment at years of being treated like an intellectual inferior. On the other – as the somewhat hindsight-possessing older-Elena narrator is aware – Nino’s an expert at grand passion. He knows just what to say to women to inspire them to drop everything and run off with them, and has unclaimed children all across Italy to show for it. There’s this moment when it looks as if Elena will leave Pietro in favor of independence and being single for a while and that seems like an excellent idea, but when did great fiction ever limit itself to good decision-making?

Leaving Pietro for Nino isn’t really about creative self-realization… except it kind of is, because Nino inspires her to write. But does she care what Nino thinks about her work because she’s admired his brains since they were kids and respects his opinion, or because Nino Is Sex?

But turning back a bit, wasn’t Elena’s marriage to Pietro also a savvy career move? In exchange for tolerating an unexciting husband, Elena gained access to a volunteer literary PR person in his well-connected mother Adele. It’s not just that the marriage gives Elena a path out of her class, city, and neighborhood of origin. It’s also, more specifically, that Adele builds the path for Elena to have a writing career, first as a novelist, then as a reporter.

And maybe that’s what makes the Neapolitan novels so wonderful, apart from the obvious (that is, the combination of a sweeping portrait of society and intricate portrayals of the moment-by-moment emotional lives of the characters). Desires – for artistic achievement, material comfort, sex – exist in unpredictable, intertwined ways.

Yes, one can do the political discussion and talk about how the book is – among so many other things – a powerful refutation of the idea that it’s possible to for class struggle not to take gender into account. But it would be a mistake to reduce the book to a political manifesto, or, conversely, to believe that the strongest political points come from works with obvious political intent.

Dog Eared Reads

Dog Eared Reads with Sun Tan Lotion Smudges

My own selection for this trip looks a bit like this:
‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante £11.99 (Europa Editions) – This is the third in the Neapolitan Series and if you haven’t yet started them get to a bookshop pronto! I could easily have read all 4 books in this series back to back, but working in the bookshop, blogging and the like means that I like to get some variety in there for chatting to people about the goings on in the literary world. This enforced break between each book may have actually done me good as it has ensured I have taken my time and really savoured the stories. I have just over half way through the third and as with the previous I am finding myself proclaiming to those around me that the story has developed to become even richer, the characters more complex and the relationships so wholly absorbing I feel myself having physical reactions to the sufferings of those I have come to care for within the pages. This book really moves the plot along from the second, you can feel that the times they really are a changin’ for those living in Naples, both politically and personally (although in this novel for me the ‘personal is political’ could never be more true). Ferrante is an author with fire flowing through her pen and I feel its full force now, with less than a third to go I really should be getting on …!

Boston Globe

It’s that time of year again: The summer reading list! Here are nearly 80 possibilities, from epic novels to thoughtful essays, meaty histories to gripping mysteries, enthralling memoirs to inspiring sport sagas.


The Neapolitan Novels’: “My Brilliant Friend,’’ “The Story of a New Name,’’ “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,’’ “The Story of the Lost Child,” Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa)

You’ve heard everyone talk about them, this addictive epic about two girls in Naples and the pathways they take into life. The size has put you off, maybe the hype. Just start with volume 1, and say good-bye to the world around you.

James Reads Books

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

I consider David Copperfield to be a great book, one of many  masterpieces by Charles Dickens.  It’s a long book, a very long book, telling nearly the entire life story of its narrator and title character.

People may prefer different sections of David Copperfield over other parts of the book, the bits with Francis Micawber are the best parts by the way, but you can’t really judge the book as anything other than one work.  You don’t have four opinions, one per quarter;  you have one opinion.

I think that’s the best way to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. They have been broken down into four separate books but they are really one novel.  The cast of characters introduced in the first book has not grown much by the end of book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.  The issues the main characters face are still basically the same, the conflicts introduced in childhood continue to haunt the imagenarrator’s life in book three.  This is a life story; life goes on.

I’ve finished reading book three and plan on completing the series sometime this summer or in the early fall.  I feel like I should just post a link to my earlier reviews, or maybe invite you to come back later when I’m done with all four and can try to make sense of them in a more complete way.

Until then I can say that I’m still loving the books, enthralled by the characters, hoping they can work things out somehow.  I’ve no idea how all of this will end and I’m not exactly looking forward to it.  When you spend this much time with a character, it can be hard to say goodbye.

The Bookskeptic

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante

After ‘The Story of a New Name’ I needed a break, but I don’t give up easily, so after reading few other books I started on the third installment of the Neapolitan Novels. It was awesome, I devoured the book over a day and a half, I couldn’t stop reading it, I was annoyed when someone talked to me, I just wanted to be left alone and immerse myself.

The story continues from the point where the previous book stopped, we are reminded that the story is recounted by sixty-six years old Lenu, with her distance and experience. Lenu is drawn into the new cultured world of her fiancé’s family, she’s dazed and fascinated by it and at the same time feels uncertain, constantly seeking approval, making sure she is fits in, meets the expectations. She prepares to get married and move to Florence, happy to leave the neighborhood behind; she promotes her book. It seems Lenu is finally able to exist on her own, until Lila summons her.

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail. Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished. It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance. And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.

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The Irish Independent

Objects of Desire with Pandora McCormick

Pandora McCormick

The Red Rock actress tells Andrea Smith about her favourite purchases


I’m really enjoying Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels series. They’re beautifully written, and are set during the rise of communism in Italy. My fiancé Killian bought me the third one, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (€18.95, and I have to say it was a really good choice.

Fiction Advocate

Imaginary Friends

socal mansion

In high school my friends and I daydreamed about the big house we’d all buy together when we grew up. It would be a big house in Southern California, and every day would be a continuation of our glorious days of summer: dinner parties, Frisbee, car washes, greasy sandwiches, bonfires at the beach. We each had a role: handyman, cook, that guy who does all the spreadsheets.

Perhaps you all know how this ends. Perhaps it is hardly surprising for me to tell you that we are scattered now, that many of us no longer talk at all. I never told them this, but I didn’t want to live in California anyway.

To say we grew apart is a cheap explanation. It leaves much out. Growing apart—what does that mean? Why do some friendships grow and others grow apart? Where is the line between breathing space and total disconnection?

I read the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet over the span of three weeks, a pace that accelerated as my sense of urgency increased with each cliffhanger. The second volume took one week; the third, three days; and the last, I read between two p.m. and midnight one weekday afternoon starting with the first free moment I had at work.

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Swirl & Thread

Take-2-300x199I saw these books for the first time in December 2015 in Waterstones Bookshop. I was immediately attracted to the storyline so (as a result of a very BIG hint!!!) I received the first two as a Christmas gift and purchased Books 3 & 4 in January….I was in love!!!

There are four books in this series, all published by Europa Editions. These books were originally written in Italian but brilliantly translated into English by Ann Goldstein.

  1. Book 1 – My Brilliant Friend (Published 2012)
  2. Book 2 – The Story of a New Name (Published 2013)
  3. Book 3 – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Behind (Published 2014)
  4. Book 4 – The Story of the Lost Child (Published 2015)

As you can see the books were published in sequence annually, as they were supposed to be read one a year. I went for it & read the whole series, with a small break after Book 2, and completed the series at the end of February 2016.

These amazing books are primarily a story about female friendship set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950’s and winds its way through the lives of the characters throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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True Love Stories

Book Series Explores the Pain, Passion and Power of Friendship

TS-508094024 Italian woman at bridge

If you’re looking for a series of books you can fall in love with, take a look at Elena Ferrante’s best-selling, four-book series of Neapolitan Novels. We noticed that the last book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, made a lot of “Best Books of 2015” lists including NPR, the New York Times and O Magazine, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. The books also made our list of favorites. You’re in for a treat!

Here’s a summary of each book for you:

My Brilliant Friend 
is the first book in the series and it’s a modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors. My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

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The Guardian

Food in books: frittelle from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay


When the famous frittelle arrived, the girls were elated, and so was Pietro, they fought over them. Only then Nino turned to me.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

It’s only been a couple of months since my recipe from My Brilliant Friend. You’ll have to excuse my returning so quickly to Ferrante’s Naples – I sped through the final two books in her Neapolitan series and have thought of them almost constantly since. If you haven’t yet picked them up, I (once again) can’t recommend them highly enough.

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Public books



December 15, 2015 — What happens when the most ambitious rethinking of the politics of realism in recent memory can’t be attached to a face? (Can they give the Nobel Prize to a pseudonym?) Now that the Neapolitan tetralogy is complete, it’s clear that Elena Ferrante’s decision to remain biographically unavailable is her greatest gift to readers, and maybe her boldest creative gesture. Her intransigence has protected these books from the ambient noise that threatens to engulf any truly original cultural artifact: the vaguely bullying blurb delirium (The Story of the Lost Child comes prefaced with seven pages of it); the debate over the cheesy pastel covers; the reports that Knausgaard fans and Ferrante partisans are brawling in Park Slope.1

Who really cares about any of it when the books are so sheerly interesting? Ferrante’s inaccessibility to public consumption feels designed to help her books survive whatever storms of silliness are kicked up by the enthusiasm they have sparked. Her self-erasure is more than a challenge to the celebrity logic of contemporary literary culture. It has meant that readers are forced—are free—to confront these novels in all their unassimilable intensity. To paraphrase the most pitiless sentence in the final installment: we’re going to have to resign ourselves to not seeing her.

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The Phraser

Book Review: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

This book, the third in the series, has an ache in it that grows as the story lengthens.  It is about the absence of love and belonging, and the complications of motherhood.

The themes belong to us all and Ferrante intensifies them against the backdrop of Naples. She paints her story with the city’s colours, chosen for their truth from a palette that other cities struggle to match.

Florence and the River Arno

For most of this book the narrator, Elena Greco, is trapped in restless domesticity on the edge of a new life that fails to satisfy.  Naples, with its entwined, familiar lives, is faded into a distance made foggy by new responsibilities in Florence.

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