The real heart of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is the economic striving that drives their heroine throughout her life.
Very few people know the true identity of the Italian novelist who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante, but I’d be willing to bet serious money that if we ever learn the truth, her personal history won’t contain a childhood friend very much like Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, the last of which, The Story of the Lost Child, is now being published in its English translation (by Ann Goldstein), have captivated a certain rarified segment of the reading public—mostly women of a literary bent. Fans justly celebrate the addictive properties of these books, a saga that encompasses the entire life of its narrator, a writer named Elena Greco, organizing it around her relationship to Lila, her best friend from their early days growing up in a tough, poor neighborhood in 1950s Naples. Just about everyone assumes the novels are autobiographical, and describes their subject as the ambivalent wonders of “female friendship,” which makes them sound like a tonier version of Sex and the City, only with a lot more fights between the heroines.
That’s one way to read the Neapolitan novels, and you may feel compelled to lean on that interpretation if you want to sing their praises to, say, a mainstream audience in a women’s magazine or the members of your book club. Part of the rich flavor of these books comes from Ferrante’s skillful blending of the familiar motifs of commercial fiction with an elevated style and a refusal to stoop to sentimental reassurances and easily likable characters. Ferrante isn’t the first novelist to take two or more female characters from youth through adulthood, tracing their rising and falling fortunes in love, wealth, and status over the cultural changes in some swath of recent history. Past masters of this kind of story include the likes of Mary McCarthy (The Group) and Rona Jaffe (The Best of Everything), and these days you can even hold onto your highbrow cred if you admit to reading such novels, provided you make it clear you regard them as guilty pleasures.