Elena Ferrante: The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name

I have only recently finished Elena Ferrante’s second novel “The Story of a New Name” on the heels of having read her first “My Brilliant Friend” but I feel compelled to shout their names out loud to anyone who will listen….. to go, go pick up the first book, then the second. Today I will be go and get the third “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”.

The books span the lifelong friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo two bright young girls who grow up in a crime ridden impoverished neighbourhood of Naples during the 50s. While poverty, brutality and survival are the building blocks of their daily existence, their natural intelligence, curiosity and deep desire to learn becomes the push and pull, the love and hate that underlines their friendship. While Elena is taken under the wing of a Maestra at school and continues to excel, Lila who has the brasher personality of the two, is forced to quit and go to work by the time she is 12 and is married by 16. Yet, as the novels progress, the question remains, who is “The Brilliant Friend’? What is brilliance? What is friendship? What are these irrepressible bonds that fundamentally alter the course of our lives, even our souls?

What I love about these novels is the ease with which the story and the language fills your imagination creating a tapestry of Neapolitan life. These novels bring you deep into the dirt, the lives, the streets of Naples and yet it reaches high above the city to the political landscape of the time, to political theories and classical literature.

The ease of language is deceptive. For example, in book two the summer of beach romance continues on for a good part of the book. It reminded me of the Harlequin’s I used to read as a kid. Smooth, summer romantic reading…all seamlessly told through a traditional story telling structure. And yet, as Elena Ferrante says, ‘there is a magna” that underpins the narrative. This is the real stuff of life particularly for women whose lives are never their own…and it’s a reminder that these days aren’t so far away and indeed, are very prevalent in the lives of many women today. Daily life is filled with domestic and sexual violence, people are hard, because life is hard…and yet….there is this tapestry of friendship that propels the story forward…the push and pull of love and hate, of knowledge, ignorance and desire.

For those of you wanting to learn more about the enigmatic and media shy author there is a great interview in Vanity Fair which I encourage you to read. This woman has a muscular brain.