Why every woman – and most men – must read Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels

The novels bring the choices that women make the centre of the reading experience.

Sayalee Karkare

Set against the backdrop of Naples, the tetralogy – My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015) – traces the lives of two friends, Lila and Elena, following them from childhood into adolescence, and eventually into middle age. The final book of the four-part series has a September 2015 release.

I started reading the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, on a long distance flight and could not stop until I had reached the very last page. As soon as I finished the book, I ordered the next in the series online, and set about finding out all I could about the author, Elena Ferrante.

Who is she?

The first thing I discovered was that Elena Ferrante was not Elena Ferrante. She might be Anita Raja, a translator who works at Edizioni E/O, the publishing house responsible for introducing Ferrante to the Italian public. She might also be a man. Heck, she might even be a group of men and women!

So closely guarded is her identity that despite a writing career that spans two decades, her readers remain none the wiser as to who she might be. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, for Ferrante says that “she” prefers her books to speak for themselves.

And how well the Neapolitan series speaks! It is a tale of female friendship, a highly fraught undertaking at the best of times, bursting with petty jealousies, secret admiration and schadenfreude at others.

“Books don’t change your life,” Ferrante wrote in the Financial Times last year. “At most, if they are good, they can hurt and bring confusion.” That is certainly the effect of the Neapolitan series.

Why, you ask, as a reader, should I deliberately hurt and confuse myself? That is a valid question, but we read not so much to avoid the tragedies of life but to better prepare ourselves against them. Perhaps if we encounter all this confusion and pain in the Neapolitan series, we will be spared it in real life. If not, at least we will know what’s coming.

Where it begins

The story of My Brilliant Friend begins uneasily with a ne’er-do-well son, who is half-heartedly looking for his missing mother, mostly so she can continue to finance whatever it is that he doesn’t do well, or at all. He dashes off a missive to her friend, Elena Greco, and that is how we meet the first person narrator of the book. Told entirely from the perspective of Elena, the book is a psychoanalytic goldmine, documenting with academic precision the coming of age of two girls growing up in a small, impoverished town in Italy.

Ever since their paths cross, Elena is almost inexorably bound to Lila. When we first meet the pair, Lila is a narrow-eyed, foul-mouthed feral child, unhesitant about throwing rocks at errant neighbourhood boys.

Elena, on the other hand, is timid and shy, always working hard to overcome her perceived mediocrity with painstaking discipline. Her biggest fear is that no matter how hard she tries, she will never be as good as her brilliant friend, Lila. It is this dynamic – of fear, love, worship and, above all, of envy – that characterises their friendship.

For Rachel Donadio of the New York Times, the series offer a brilliant study in envy, “the most pernicious of emotions”. It is true that the novels are steeped in envy, but envy, when understood properly, can reveal to us our deepest desires.

Envy can drive us to try again and again to acquire that which we think we are lacking, and in so doing, transform us. We see these attempts at constant improvement and perfection, by both Lila and Elena, play out in the novel and the rest of the series.

A matter of choice

While Lila is the bar against which Elena holds herself, Lila herself does not seem to be so affected by Elena, at least not superficially. She has her own internal compass, a motor that drives her to ever more terrifying feats of rage and accomplishment. Everything she does, she does with a ferocious, determined virtuosity. It is as if she is cut from a different cloth than everyone else in their surroundings.

And yet, she has to contend with her impoverished situation, the internal logic of the neighbourhood she finds herself in, where violence and masculine aggression are daily fare, where, ultimately, the chances of a woman overcoming her fate are very slim.

The struggle between a natural, internal core and the outside conditions imposed by a cruel and unjust social order forms the basis of the novel. It is a struggle, faced not only by the two girls, but by every character in the book. If their inner compulsions determine whom they befriend, their dreams and goals, indeed their very happiness, then the external reality dictates who those friends will be, what form those dreams will take, and the depth of that happiness.

As the novel progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to separate the deterministic idea that our choices are a result of an immutable force inside of us that we do not truly control from the behaviourist argument that our choices, carefully considered, have the power to change our destiny.

For Ferrante, the ability to exercise our own choices is of paramount importance and one that she takes very seriously. In an interview to the New York Times, Ferrante said that if there is one thing she hopes her readers take from her novels, it is this: “Even if we’re continually tempted to lower our guard – for love or weariness, for sympathy or kindness – we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we’ve achieved.”

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