TORONTO – Astonishing is the success of the mysterious Italian author who hides behind the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante. An extraordinary editorial case not only in Italy, but also – and especially – abroad: the four books that comprise the series of “My Brilliant Friend” (Europa editions) have won critics as well as ordinary readers, selling in the United States and Canada almost a million copies, 150 thousand the fourth volume solely. Why? Here there are three likely reasons.
First of all, the setting. For those who haven’t been overwhelmed yet by Ferrante phenomenon, “My Brilliant Friend” (2012), “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014), “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015) tell the story of the friendship between Raffaella Cerullo and Elena Greco from their childhood to old age. Both born in 1944 and grew up in a suburb of Naples, the two ‘little women’ constantly intertwine their lives with the events of more than half a century of official history, a history that manifests itself in all its faces, from the economic boom after World War II to the Years of Lead and the 9/11 attacks. This Neapolitan frame and setting the plot “in the past” is a first reason for the success abroad, as the post-war Naples corresponds to an idea of Italy already present in the North American imaginary, and even more in the Italian-Americans and Italian-Canadians, people who often escaped from similar realities.
Secondly, the extraordinary relationship between the main characters, two women who represent, in their contradictory humanity, each one of us. Elena and Raffaella, aka Lenù and Lila, seem two protagonists very different in personality and destiny: one blonde and good, the other brunette and evil. The former beloved by everybody, the latter hated and envied from childhood to marriage, the former on the road to academic success and officially the “brilliant friend”, the latter fatally mired in poverty, the traps of Camorra and ignorance of the neighborhood. However, their identities are often confused. Lila, who only attended elementary school, studies Latin and Greek alone in her father’s workshop, a shoemaker, whereas Lenù seems to go on for her friend’s pleasure and, at the same time, to compete with her, in the study as well as in life. In other words, the four volumes unfold and put on display a complicated friendship, that leads the reader to question about who the brilliant friend really is. Perhaps it’s just a single person, split into two entities, as in Calvino’s “The Cloven Viscount”? In any case, they both represent the only glimpse of light in a violent and gloomy world with no hope.
Finally, Elena Ferrante’s writing style, which is powerful, intimate and catchy. The author creates a story that can deeply engage any reader and translator, that appeals to a broad audience, fascinated both by the two protagonists and their lives, in a style simple and sensual at once.
Our conclusions? It’s a graceful summer reading, recommended to those who love travelling, in Italy and abroad, (also) thanks to the power of their imagination.