At exactly—or just about—midnight on Tuesday, a bearded employee of the Community Bookstore, in Park Slope, rushed into the back room of the shop and, waving his hands, proclaimed, “Ferrante fever forever! It’s midnight! The book is now on sale!”
The small but game crowd broke into applause. They had gathered in the store, starting at 10 P.M., for the release of “The Story of the Lost Child,” the fourth and final book in what is known as the Neapolitan series, by the anonymous Italian author who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante. The books chronicle the lifelong friendship of the hard-working, ambitious Elena and the fiery, brilliant Lila. Stacks of reserved copies of the new volume sat behind the counter, but they would not officially be sold until September 1st. Although, would anyone really make a fuss if a copy or two slipped out with the occasional patron, who, through no lack of commitment or ardor, couldn’t quite make it until midnight?
This was a party, in the tradition established by the Harry Potter series, for books whose fan bases have become ravenous. A small table was set up in the middle of the shop with olives, cheeses, Italian wines, and free buttons that said “Ferrante Fever” in neon pink. An Italian crooner played on a speaker in the corner.
Branka Ruzak, a woman with straight brown hair, glasses, and wide eyes, was among the most enthusiastic fans present for the occasion. “The thought of getting it first” was enough to bring her out late on a Monday night, she said. She’d been itching with annoyance at the Times for printing a spoiler-laden review that she’d been assiduously avoiding. (She wasn’t alone. “The Times,” another woman later declared, “should be put on blast.”) But Ruzak wasn’t planning to stay up with a flashlight under her covers to plow through the new book. “I do have a job,” she said.
She and her friend Louise Crawford, whom she’s known since the nineties, described the books, variously, as “just fantastic,” “so juicy,” and “just so smart.” They sat at a table covered in printed images of sexy but despairing-looking ladies, sullen children, and Italian Renaissance art. The consensus at the Community Bookstore was that the covers of the books—which the designerrecently described as purposefully “low class”—were awful. So revellers were invited to design and create their own covers. (Michael Reynolds, the editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, which publishes the books in English, was in attendance. He laughed about the griping over the cover art, but stayed away from the collage table. “I’ve made my cover,” he said.)
Crawford had selected a photo of a little girl in a swimsuit reaching toward the sky, and used bright blue and green markers to draw waves around her, an homage to the character Elena’s first trip to the beach. “It’s a feminist cover,” she said. Both women preferred the Ferrante books to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels, which Ruzak was getting bored of. “It’s just ‘My father, my father,’ again and again,” she said. “ ‘My father, my father, my father.’ ” Ferrante, she thought, depicts a more recognizable set of life’s contours. Crawford, a chatty woman with beaded earrings who seemed to know everyone, became quiet when asked if the central friendship in the books, with its roller coaster of resentment and devotion, resembled any of her own relationships. “Oh, yes,” she said, leaning into her collage. “There are definitely things that ring true.”
Many of the women present—there weren’t many men, apart from Reynolds, some bookstore employees, and the husband of a journalist who recently interviewed Ferrante—came in pairs. Haley Flannery gave her friend Jennifer Sale a hard look when Sale said that Flannery was “definitely a Lila.” It wasn’t that she didn’t like being thought of as a Lila, she explained, but that she wasn’t sure if it was true. “I feel as hemmed in as Elena,” she said.
Nell Klugman, who had a Ferrante Fever button pinned on her denim shirt, bonded over the books with a college friend who lives in a different city. She had talked to the friend earlier, and told her about her plan to come to the release with a Dark Mark (a symbol of Lord Voldemort, in a late-night-launch-party crossover from the Potter world) drawn on her arm in Sharpie. It was perfect, they’d agreed, “Because Nino is a Death Eater.” Her companion to the party, Tara Jayakar, hadn’t read the books but came anyway, Klugman said, “Because she’s such a great friend.” Klugman described how touched she and her college friend had been when they reached the end of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first book in the Ferrante series, and realized “they’re both each other’s brilliant friend.”
“Because that’s what friendship is,” Klugman said.
“Gross,” Jayakar said, under her breath.