The novelist’s characters have been called “difficult women.” She would say they are simply women with desires.
(…) The incredible success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which have been greeted by her fans with the kind of rush-to-the-bookstore avidity usually reserved for writers like J. K. Rowling, speaks to a hunger among readers who continue to crave depictions of women as real, as flawed, as people who can’t be constrained by a predetermined narrative. ‘‘We were starved for this as a literary subject, and we didn’t even know it,’’ says the novelist Elliott Holt, who studied with Messud at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in 2003. Ferrante’s novels explore the lifelong relationship between Elena and Lila, two women who grew up in a Naples slum and followed divergent trajectories, whose friendship is complex in just the way Woolf might have wanted. They’re notable not just because they portray the friendship between two women in detail, but because they do so on an epic scale, in a four-book series that amounts to more than 1,600 pages in English translation. The women are alternately supportive and competitive, particularly when their individual ambitions place them in each other’s way. Their relationship isn’t primarily nurturing or caretaking; it’s fierce and untrammeled. They’re more than capable of evoking the full range of emotions.
Ferrante’s work has reopened a conversation around a fiction of complicated women, but Messud has been quietly answering Woolf’s call for years. The relationships she focuses on are almost exclusively between women, depicted intimately and intensely: Danielle and Marina, the uncomfortably competitive best friends in ‘‘The Emperor’s Children’’; Nora and Sirena, the glamorous artist with whom she becomes obsessed, in ‘‘The Woman Upstairs.’’ Her protagonists, unusually for women in fiction, tend not to be wives or mothers. More often they’re figures who might be considered unpalatable, unattractive or — indeed — angry. Her work quietly seethes at the idea that a woman needs to be ‘‘likable’’ — or that a man should be the judge of her likability. More than that, it offers a space for women to be, as she puts it, ‘‘appetitive’’: to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more. (…)