I 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.
- Book 1 – My Brilliant Friend (Published 2012)
- Book 2 – The Story of a New Name (Published 2013)
- Book 3 – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Behind (Published 2014)
- 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.
There has been much written about the brilliance of these books. I have included some of the comments that have been made to give you an idea of how these books have been received globally.
“The Neapolitan quartet….now seems to me, at least within all that I’ve read, to be the greatest achievement in fiction of the post-war era” – Charles Finch, The Chicago Tribune
“In these bold, gorgeous, relentless novels, Ferrante traces the deep connections between the political and the domestic. This is a new version of the way we live now – one we need, one told brilliantly, by a woman” – Roxana Robinson, The New York Times Book Review
“Nothing quite like it has ever been published” – The Guardian
“Regardless of who is behind the name Elena Ferrante, the mysterious pseudonym used by the author of the Neapolitan novels, two things are certain: she is a woman and she knows how to describe Naples like nobody else. She does so with a style that recalls an enchanted spider web with its expressive power and the wizardry with which it creates an entire world”. – Huffington Post (Italy)
Book 1 – My Brilliant Friend
This was the book that got me hooked!!!!!!!
It covers the period of childhood & adolescence of our two main characters Elena (Lenú) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerulla and is set in the poverty stricken outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. We are introduced to Elena as the narrator of the story as she is now old & has discovered that Lila has disappeared. She takes us back through their youth, how they became friends & the daily challenges they faced in a hostile environment, where violence was the norm. We see how their lives, while remaining intertwined, take very different paths into a very uncertain future.
From the book cover –
‘Ferrante has created a memorable portrait of two women, but My Brilliant Friend is also the story of a nation. Through the lives of Elena and Lila, Ferrante gives her readers the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country undergoing momentous change.’
The picture that Ferrante paints is so realistic. As a reader you are sucked into the lives & loves of the Neopolitans as they struggle to survive on a daily basis. But…you are also taken into the lives of Lila & Elena as they grow into young women & begin to recognize the environment they live in. It is a story of two girls who, through all that life throws at them, remain almost tied together by an invisible binding thread.
Book 2 – The Story of a New Name
The Story of a New Name picks up exactly where My Brilliant Friend left us.
‘I placed the box on the parapet, and pushed it slowly, a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her: book and shoes, sweetness and violence, the marriage and the wedding night, the return to the neighborhood in the new role of Signora Raffaella Carracci’.
As this excerpt from page 18 of the book tells us, Lila is now married. She married into the Carracci family to Stefano. Stefano has grown up as the son of Don Achille Carracci, a man murdered when Stefano was a young boy. He is now head of the family, managing various properties, including a very profitable grocery store. He is also ‘the owner’ of Lila. Throughout this novel we see the difficult & tempestuous marriage and we are exposed to the violence that carries through all the books. Lila will not be owned. She is very strong willed with passions and feelings of her own that cannot be tamed. These features of her personality are carried through the story.
It is now the 1960’s and Italy is in a state of change. Elena is on a very different path. She moves away from Naples to study and discovers both herself & a whole new world, a world in which she begins to thrive. Cracks appear in their relationship. ‘She’s acting like my mother, I thought with a little annoyance, she’s playing the grownup.’
Although Elena is constantly strugglling with herself and her place in a society she wasn’t born into, she is now mixing with the educated, the political, the militant. Through it all she succeeds in completing her education.
‘I graduated in the following session, I avoided telling my parents, I was afraid my mother would feel it her duty to come and celebrate me………After such a long time, I really was pleased with myself. I wasn’t yet twenty-three and I had obtained a degree in literature with the highest grade. My father hadn’t gone beyond fifth grade in elementary school, my mother had stopped at second, none of my forebears, as far as I knew, had learned to read and write fluently. It had been an astonishing effort.’
Book 3 – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
‘Each of us narrates our life as it suits us’. As spoken by Lila, who in Book 3 is now leading a very different life. Gone are the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle. She has by now left her husband & she is living in a flat on the outskirts of the old neighborhood. The beautiful fashion that she was once known for has been replaced by the overalls from the meat factory where she now works.
Elena, on the other hand, is mixing in a new world, that of a published author. She herself gets married but finds the constraints of motherhood on her career very frustrating. There is so much happening in Italy at this time that she grapples with wanting to be a part of it but also wanting to a good mother.
The friendship between Lila & Elena struggles through this book.
“Why don’t you call me anymore, aren’t you well?”
“I’m very well, I’m writing.”
“And when you write I no longer exist?”
“You exist but I’m distracted.”
“If I’m ill, if I need you?”
“And if I don’t telephone you stay inside your novel?”
“I envy you, lucky you.”
This is conversation Elena & Lila have over the telephone. They hardly see or communicate anymore. I love the simplicity of the sentences, especially the last line. Lila is admitting her envy for Elena……something Elena never hears Lila say. I think there is an awful lot said here in the brevity of the sentences & the conversation.
Both Elena & Lila continue their struggles through life in this book but not so much together anymore. Their paths are now so different, that the common ground they once shared is proving difficult to cling onto in their now fraught relationship. Elena is preparing, toward the end of Book 3, to start her life all over again. As much as she wants to though Lila is always there. ” Even now as I write, I realize that I don’t have enough information to move on to Lila went, Lila did, Lila met, Lila planned…….I had the impression that here in the neighborhood, between backwardness and modernity, she had more history than I did. How much had I lost in leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life…….Hers was a life in motion, mine was stopped.”
The book ends with Elena on a plane leaving the country she has loved & lived in her whole life. She is about to begin her new adventure with new pains & new loves. Lila remains, as always, in Naples.
Book 4 – The Story of The Lost Child
The concluding novel, Book 4, covers the later years of the complicated lives of Elena & Lila. Elena has traveled the world as a well published author but the draw to Naples is always there, so eventually she moves back. Lila, unable to ever break the chains that tie her to Naples is still there. Their friendship reaches a new level. Events happen that change everything forever (no spoilers I promise!!!). Lila has become a very successful entrepreneur at this point. She is a highly intelligent woman who takes advantage when she can and takes what she needs when she wants. She has contacts with the criminal underworld, the Camorra, but she is not afraid of them or anyone. The Solara family are a very dangerous presence in Lila’s life throughout all four books and in Book 4 Lila continues to challenge them.
Elena has contacts in the political world and tries to help others in the neighborhood when she can. “You always needed some patron saint in Paradise to navigate the calculated opacity of the underworld”. In the situation that faces them, there is no one to help them.
Lila disappears inside her head to a place where no person is able to reach, not even Elena. She is angry. She is depressed. She is a woman living on the edge of the precipice where anything can happen.
“To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don’t even have the desire to live, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have. If I could eliminate myself now, while we’re speaking, I’d be more than happy.”
I think Book 4 is a quite a disturbing book in the face of human tragedy. I think it makes us look at lives lost & lives lived. It makes us think of how we would like to be remembered (or not).
As Elena puts it in the final passage “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity”
So, to conclude, these novels about strong female friendship and Neopolitan life over such a changing time in Italian history, are perhaps books that will make you think, books that will broaden your mind, books “that you will return to again and again, and each return will bring new revelations.”
I really hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Til next time.