Neapolitan Novels: Beyond All Reason
THE FOURTH AND FINAL volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child, was published earlier this month to a great deal of excitement among those lucky enough to have already experienced the perplexing joy that comes from reading Ferrante. Over more than 1,500 pages, best friends (and, at times, bitter rivals) Elena and Lila navigate six turbulent decades in Naples, a city as fiery and unpredictable as the famous volcano looming to its east. Now that their stories are over, two Ferrante fans sat down on the first day of fall to talk about what makes these books so unusual, and so addictive.
ALISON: The other day, my boss asked me what these books are about, and I flailed for a good minute and a half attempting to explain. So, you go.
MICHAEL: What are these books about? They’re about… changing relationships. We have this set of characters who are born into a very tight-knit community, and we see their lives unfold in unexpected ways. Yuck. That doesn’t sound like something I would want to read.
ALISON: [Laughing] It’s hard. I kept saying, “But it’s good!”
MICHAEL: It’s also this obsessive study of a friendship.
ALISON: This endless return to one formative relationship.
MICHAEL: It’s such a soap opera and yet it doesn’t read like one. In some ways it resembles a thriller.
ALISON: It’s like 47 different kinds of books. At times it’s soapy, and then it’s as dense as Middlemarch with all the social dynamics, then there’s political commentary, and so much about the role of women in society… these books are difficult to characterize.
MICHAEL: I worry that Ferrante is not going to get enough credit for her sentences.
ALISON: I don’t know if I love the sentences.
MICHAEL: I do! It really feels like someone speaking.
ALISON: I’ll give you that. But there were very few moments where the writing made me stop and appreciate a sentence. I never underlined anything. And because I wasn’t enraptured with it on that level, there was a lot of it I found tedious. I ignored big swaths of characters toward the end. The reasons why I like it, and was so invested in it, are not because of the things that happen.
MICHAEL: And it wasn’t the writing itself. So what was it?
ALISON: It was more cerebral. It’s all about this character’s way of seeing the world.
MICHAEL: My favorite passages are where Elena has done something icky and she’s momentarily feeling so great about herself, because she thinks she’s surpassed Lila. It just feels true to life.
ALISON: Ferrante is so good at moments like that—where a character is doing something for the wrong reasons but can’t see it yet. I felt a sense of urgency whenever Lila was trapped in super oppressive circumstances. I never felt that for Elena. Of the two women, did you find one more sympathetic than the other?
MICHAEL: I was a little more sympathetic toward Lila. It seemed like she was always risking more. I was fascinated watching their daughters start to reenact their childhood dynamics.
ALISON: Wait! That’s Elena’s interpretation of what’s happening. It may have been true, but this is why I don’t like her. She projects that shit on everything. It goes beyond all reason. On every level, her life is so much better than Lila’s, and yet she’s still attributing all this power to her friend. By the end of the book I’m Team Lila.
MICHAEL: I guess I got suckered in a little bit by Elena’s take. I saw so many people’s lives being shaped in some way by Lila.
ALISON: Lila is very attractive, very intelligent, people want things from her… but this idea that she’s spinning this elaborate web? I don’t know.
MICHAEL: Is the intensity between Lila and Elena unusual?
ALISON: In my experience, these sorts of super intense relationships between girls flame out. Whereas my best friend—who I went to grade school with—we just smoke pot and watch TV.