My 12-Weeks-of-Christmas list isn’t supposed to start until October, but I’m jumping the gun. Has anyone on your gift list read Elena Ferrante’s first three Neapolitan Novels? The final book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, was released on September 1st; and if your friend doesn’t run out and buy it, here’s your shot at the perfect present.
The four novels are:
Raffaella Cerullo, called Lina or Lila, and Elena Greco, sometimes called Lenù, are born in August of 1944 and grow up in a tough section of Naples. (One day one of their mothers-in-law will refer to all of Naples as a “disorderly city.”)
Lila disappears one day, when she’s 66 years old. Elena, a published novelist, decides to tell the story of their lives, their friendship, their loves and marriages and livelihoods, and how they lived through a period of political and technological change and (I just read this passage yesterday) the horrible earthquake of 1980.
Their friendship is at the heart of the novels. Early on, the two little girls are climbing the stairs, planning to knock on the door of a neighborhood villain. I always felt slightly detached from my own actions, Elena tells us. Lila, on the other hand, had, from a young age–I can’t say now if it was precisely so at six or seven . . . the characteristic of absolute determination. Whether she was gripping the tricolor shaft of the pen or a stone or the handrail on the dark stairs, she communicated the idea that whatever came next–thrust the pen with a precise motion into the wood of the desk, dispense inky bullets, strike the boys from the country side, climb the stairs to Don Achille’s door–she would do it without hesitation.
That’s from My Brilliant Friend. The words “brilliant friend” are used at one point in reference to Elena, but don’t be confused. Lila might not be writing any books, but readers know that she’s ingenious and resourceful, and sometimes a little frightening. Elena is the one with the brilliant friend.
I’m halfway through the 4th book (7/8 of the way through the series, in other words), and I would have been lost without the the index of characters, listed by family, at the beginning of each novel. If you use these indexes when reading the books, DO NOT PEEK AHEAD. If you’re just starting My Brilliant Friend, for example, and you check out the character index at the beginning of The Story of the Lost Child, you’ll learn way too much about the future interactions of these Neapolitan families.
Just allow Elena to guide you through the years.