Sam Sinclair Blog

The mystery that is the writer Elena Ferrante…

About a year ago I read a review of a trilogy of books by an Italian writer called Elena Ferrante and was suitably intrigued to check her out further online. These books (which I read one after the other) were based in Naples, Italy and told of the friendship of two young girls raised in the poorest part of Naples and when I eventually reached the inconclusive end of book three, I quickly Googled only to find that a fourth book was being published later this year ! A little frustrating because the books are so addictive and absorbing any reader would be eager to read the fourth title..I certainly was.

More about the books in a moment but the real life Elena Ferrante is actually unknown and that name is for her books only because since she started her writing career over 20 years ago nobody has identified her… even as she attained real success with her work. Normally one might suggest this to be a bit pretentious or a gimmick, but she made that decision before she was even published and has kept her real name a secret with no real clues other than the fact that she is indeed a woman ! This was established in a rare interview. Intriguing to know if Ferrante is eager to reveal herself now that she is recognised as a writer of real quality and this quartet has certainly sealed her success, but I somehow doubt it. I have yet to read a negative review of the Neapolitan novels as they are being marketed, and the series is quite remarkable in that even after almost 1700 pages I at least was left wanting more.

So what exactly is it about this superb body of work that grabs the reader ? The story is about two girls who grow up together in Naples and about their often volatile friendship which even after four books you are still left uncertain of the dynamic that makes them so reliant on each other. We join the girls at the age of 6, but in the prologue of book 1 we learn that one of them has just disappeared (both ladies now in their 60s). Therefore over 55 years pass in the four books and the friend remaining is the narrator of the story. But that gives only the thinnest outline. We meet dozens of characters from the area..friends and families…each and every one making his or her mark and with a story to tell. But Ferrante wants us to concentrate on the two friends and the sometimes extraordinary lives they led all theseyears.The fact that one of the girls is narrating the story makes it even more evocative as she recalls the ups and downs of this often tempestuous but always fascinating relationship.

Friendship may be the main theme here, but the books offer so much more. Italy`s politics, corruption, Mafia type figures, education, writing, books, loyalty, differences in social standing …everything, all life is here !

The book series is a eulogy to ordinary peoples` lives, their differing aspirations and their desires to follow their instincts…even when these are questionable.  The two main characters are mesmerising throughout and though we may never truly feel comfortable with them, we read on transfixed to see which path their lives will take next.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. I finished the last one just last night, and although I would have preferred to have read it straight after the third book it didn`t take me long to get back into this extraordinary story. These are ‘can`t put down’ books..I promise you that, and don`t be put off by the hefty volume of words ! Some might consider them ladies` titles but I disagree and Ms.Ferrante`s writing is so strong it should appeal to men as well. Deceptively simplistic at times she still has a real talent in producing some beautiful prose.

They are certainly a commitment these almost 1700 pages, but not many will finish the first book without going straight on to the next. Remember the name..Elena Ferrante.

I assure you that is the only thing that is false about these wonderful books.

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

  • L’amica geniale (2011; English translation: My Brilliant Friend, 2012).
  • Storia del nuovo cognome, L’amica geniale volume 2 (2012; English translation: The Story of a New Name, 2013). 
  • Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, L’amica geniale volume 3 (2013; English translation: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014).
  • Storia della bambina perduta, L’amica geniale volume 4 (2014; English translation: The Story of the Lost Child, 2015). .

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