CATCHING THE FERRANTE BUG
I emerged into the new year feeling raw and removed from the physical world after six weeks’ holiday in which, among other things, I read the four novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The books had been piling up beside my bed since Text Publishing brought out the English translation of My Brilliant Friend in 2013 until the final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, appeared last October. People (mostly women) told me that once you began reading you couldn’t stop and it’s true: I joined the army of addicts. If ever I pulled out my book in a cafe I was accosted by a woman who wanted to share: “So you’ve got the Ferrante bug,” whispered one. For me the fascination was first with the intimate first-person narration of the friendship between two women from childhood to middle-age, through love affairs, careers, motherhood, and their intense but ruthless bond, compromised by jealous rivalry; with the emotional nuances that change moment by moment like clouds. And then with the underlying portrait of the poverty, politics and crime of late 20th-century Naples and Italy. At times I wanted to abandon the characters to their small-minded meanness but I had to know if they would pull themselves out of the mess. Some did, many didn’t. Sometimes, as crisis piled upon crisis, I agreed with the odd critics who dismiss the books as soap opera. But mostly I felt I was in the company of a frank companion who confided a story of women’s survival despite the obstacles put up by society, men and their own bad choices. If you read Jennifer Levasseur’s email interview with Ferrante in Spectrum in December, you know the author is an Italian woman who writes under a pseudonym and guards her privacy. This adds to the allure of the books, which she admits draw on her life. There are clues for readers and lessons for writers in the text as the narrator, Elena Greco, carves out a writing career. As her fiery friend and alter ego, Lila Cerullo, says near the end: “Only in bad novels people always think the right things, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likeable ones and the unlikeable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.” There is, thankfully, little consolation in these brilliant books. Now I must go back to her earlier novels, The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter and Troubling Love.
TOP BOOKS SALES OF 2015
My sense that “everyone” was reading Ferrante was not enough to put her on Nielsen BookScan’s Australian bestseller lists for 2015. At the top of the list, Andy Griffiths’ megaseller 65-Storey Treehouse series for children and adult colouring books propped up sales, while the most popular fiction was E. L. James’ erotic novel Grey. Among literary fiction, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Anthony Doerr’sPulitzer winner, All the Light We Cannot See, made the best showing. However, Text says Ferrante’s series has sold a total of 100,000 books in Australia since 2013 and My Brilliant Friend has sat on the independent bookshops’ weekly bestseller list for months. It was the No. 1 bestseller for 2015 at Brisbane bookshop Avid Reader and No. 2 (after The Mindfulness Colouring Book) at Readings bookstores in Melbourne.