Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are astonishing modern classics

Updated by on September 1, 2015, 9:07 a.m. ET

At the start of My Brilliant Friend — the first of Elena Ferrante’s astonishing Neapolitan novels — 66-year-old Elena Greco receives word that Lila Cerullo, her friend since their shared childhood in Naples, has vanished.

Yet Elena isn’t worried for her friend’s safety — because she knows Lila has long dreamed of disappearing from her life, but not through suicide. Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Lila has eliminated every trace of herself, down to cutting herself out of photos displayed in her house. So Elena, annoyed that Lila is “overdoing it as usual,” decides to thwart her disappearing act by writing down, in great detail, the full story of their tumultuous friendship — which doubles as the story of their lives.

What follows is an epic saga spanning four books (the final volume of which was just been released in English today), 1,600 printed pages, and more than 60 years for the central characters. The series is a modern masterwork, characterized by gripping plotting and vivid personalities, while exploring themes of class, male violence, feminism, politics, motherhood, and creativity with savage intelligence. It’s easily the best new fiction I’ve read in years.

The series’ author grew up in Naples and has signed these, and her three previous novels, with the pseudonym “Elena Ferrante.” Apart from that, she chose long ago to keep her identity a secret, despite increasing acclaim for her work in Italy and internationally, and feverish speculation about who she might be. “Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present,” shetold Vanity Fair in a rare interview. “To relinquish it would be very painful.” She said elsewhere, “I have written to put my writing on display, not me.”

Ferrante’s writing is indeed on display, and it’s spellbinding. The story is deeply moving, the prose (translated into English by Ann Goldstein) is stark and evocative, and the short chapters — frequently ending with sudden twists — compel a turn of the page. And throughout, Ferrante is brutally honest. She sugarcoats nothing.

Elena and Lila, the central duo, are unforgettable characters

Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo begin their friendship as children in a poor and violent neighborhood of Naples. Elena is shyer, while Lila is bold and “bad,” but the two soon distinguish themselves as the best students in their class. They become allies against the world, which for them includes abusive parents, schoolboy rivals, and neighborhood tormentors. And, eventually, they discover a shared love for writing, which they dream will make them rich.

Early in the first book, though, the girls’ lives diverge. Both want to continue on to middle school, but only one gets permission from her parents to do so. The decision shapes the opportunities available throughout the rest of the series, as one tries to use her education as a way to escape the neighborhood, while the other concludes she must make her way there as best she can.

I’ll avoid too many specifics about what follows, because the many unexpected turns Elena and Lila’s lives take, both good and bad, are a pleasure to discover. They keep reinventing themselves, dissolving their previous status quos and — sometimes suddenly, sometimes painstakingly — creating new ones.

This constant churning makes the two central characters, and their relationship, remarkably complex. Their friendship isn’t an idealized or unconditionally supportive one. In addition to behaving with deep love and affection, Elena and Lila quarrel, can be intensely competitive, make big mistakes, and often act in infuriating ways toward each other.

But Ferrante helps us understand their personalities and psyches in such detail that we always understand why. And as we get to know the characters so well, we’re compelled to follow their journeys further — even to some very dark places.

The ambitious girls are pitted against their neighborhood

The unnamed area of Naples in which Elena and Lila grow up, referred to simply as “the neighborhood,” is at the center of all four volumes. It’s a patriarchal, corrupt, and violent place. At the start, it’s the only place they know, and for one it’s the only place she ever knows.

The recurring violence from organized criminals — and, later, warring political factions — is jarring. But it’s more common for brutality to occur closer to home, with women as the main targets. “We had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood,” Elena narrates. “We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.”

Ferrante unstintingly depicts both this physical violence and the many other difficulties Elena and Lila face in their attempts to pursue their dreams. And eventually, the characters discover that even beyond their neighborhood’s walls, where people don’t openly beat each other, there are subtler, insidious ways independent-minded and ambitious women are kept down. “It’s not the neighborhood that’s sick,” one character says in book three. “It’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes.”

Yet while particularly spotlighting the dysfunction of the neighborhood, Ferrante makes us feel great affection for many of its inhabitants, who make up most of the series’ sprawling supporting cast. She focuses on eight families with children near Elena and Lila’s age — they’re listed in an index at the beginning of each book; don’t hesitate to consult it frequently — and follows them all to adulthood, old age, and (in many cases) death. It’s enjoyable to see minor characters pop up again in later volumes, in various new forms — a corrupt politician, a computer entrepreneur, a wanted fugitive.

Overall, Ferrante chronicles her characters’ efforts to overcome these obstacles, both in the neighborhood and outside it — efforts that are sometimes successful and sometimes not. Lila is a force of nature, stubbornly asserting herself against even the most impossible odds, but her brazen behavior conceals a deep uncertainty and fear. Meanwhile, Elena, who begins as the more obedient and submissive child, gradually ends up flouting societal conventions to blaze her own trail.

The books chronicle Elena and Lila’s lives from childhood to old age

Ferrante initially intended the series to be just one novel, and views it as telling a single story. But she told the New York Times, “The writing, I would say extremely naturally, unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood — stories, experiences, fantasies — so much so that the story went on for many years.”

The first volume, My Brilliant Friend, tells the story of Elena and Lila’s early years in the 1950s, and depicts how their lives begin to diverge when one continues to middle school and the other does not. We get to know the characters well, while moments from their youth are related in evocative detail, suggesting deep symbolic import (a lost pair of dolls, a fight with a rock-throwing gang of boys, Lila’s struggle in school to solve a problem that has no answer). Plotwise, Ferrante spends chapter after chapter carefully placing a series of dominoes — and with a twist at the novel’s end, finally gives them a push.

Book two, The Story of a New Name, is a roller coaster ride — shocking, dramatic, and often heartbreaking as it depicts a particularly tumultuous phase in Elena and Lila’s lives. Both are now chafing against the restrictions the neighborhood has placed on them, in different ways. But as they become young adults, they’re dealing with more and more serious matters — and increasingly coming into conflict not just with the men in their lives but with each other.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay then covers, approximately, ages 23 to 32 for Elena and Lila, dubbed “middle time.” The two live mostly separate lives at this point, but the book tackles the increasing importance of politics to both, as a crusade against an exploitative factory and a struggle to balance the demands of motherhood with a job are treated with equal gravity. Raw, honest, and painful, it’s particularly scathing about how even supposedly “enlightened” settings present their own challenges for women.

Now the fantastic concluding volume, The Story of the Lost Child, has brought the story full circle. The less you know about where it’s going, the better, but suffice to say, long-hidden truths are revealed to the central characters as they grow into middle and old age. In many ways it’s the most powerful read of the series, and the toughest — it contains some of Ferrante’s most crushingly sad passages. Even when tragedy strikes, however, life goes on, and there are yet more transformations ahead for our central pair.

As a whole, the series is a magisterial accomplishment. By the end, we’ve followed Elena and Lila through decades’ worth of joys, hopes, dreams, and disappointments — through exciting times and tedious ones, through unshakable loyalties and vicious betrayals, through good choices and some very bad ones. Ferrante has told the story of two lives, and one friendship, with the scope of an epic. It’s unforgettable.

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