Elena Ferrante is the literary child of Jane Austen and John Steinbeck — her delicately perceptive social observation has an angry undercurrent of political protest. The Neopolitan novels – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — had me gripped all year. This series tells the story of two girls, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. Although their paths diverge, their lives remain entwined. It’s a wonderful portrayal of female friendship that also explores sexual jealousy, motherhood and class. The books are beautiful but never mawkish.
Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan novels are not that patronising put-down, “women’s literature”. For a start, I’ve been totally absorbed by them. A complex story of a female friendship, narrated by a woman, it’s tough and uncompromising, like Naples itself. William Boyd’sSweet Caress also has a female narrator, the photojournalist Amory Clay, whose work takes her to a variety of exotic locations (1930s Berlin, war-torn Vietnam, hippy California), all ripe for a TV adaptation, no doubt. It’s in the same sweep-of-the century genre as his The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, without quite reaching their heights (you can’t quite believe in Amory). Like all Boyd, though, it’s meticulously researched and a gripping read. Clive James, in Latest Readings, serves up brief essays that contain more wisdom, humour and erudition than one would expect from so short a book. A world in a grain of sand.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels feel like a cross between The Godfather, Lace and Proust. Every time you can’t take any more of the violence,corruption, sex and sausage factories, the writing pulls you back. The range of characters is astonishing, but it is the relationship between the two girls from Naples, Elena and Lila, that is so compelling. They feud, compete, support and love each other over the decades under the shadow of Vesuvius. It is a mesmerising tale of Italy in the 20th century, and almost never mentions pizza.