Beginning with My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet follows the interweaving lives of two women, Elena and Lila, from their girlhood in Naples through the turbulent Italy of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It sounded to me when I first heard about it like exactly the kind of thing I wouldn’t like. But the voices of the characters are so powerfully alive, the events so vivid, the relationship between the women so stormy and complex, that the books hit me like a fist, over and over again. The Quartet is a staggering achievement, but it’s also unputdownably exciting, smart, passionate and alive. It will blow you away.
From your favorite purveyors of beautiful online garbage, here are the books, essays and pieces of journalism that’ve stuck with us throughout the year. It’s a long list and a good one: we hope it’s useful as you prepare for the plane trips, family avoidance, blissful solitude and last-minute presents that will close out 2015.
Rachel Vorona Cote
The Neapolitan Novels (especially Book 4), by Elena Ferrante: There are certain books that I finish, only to realize that the desire propelling me to keep reading was a survival mechanism: the tapestry of Lena and Lila’s long intimacy so vividly depicts the way friendships become worlds of their own, the simultaneous ecstasy and peril of investing so much of yourself in another person—and regarding them as a muse. The last book in the series is probably not the *best* of the four; book two, The Story of a New Name, is probably the strongest. But I cannot help but feel the most affection for book four as the installment that traces out the twilight of a capacious friendship. The ending smarts, but in the best way.
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante: This could actually apply to the entire series of Neapolitan novels, all of which I read over the course of the year. Though My Brilliant Friend took some time to fall in love with, it was a love that kept growing—book after book—all the way to TSotLC’s quietly satisfying conclusion. I cared more about the lives of Lila and Lenu than I ever have for two fictional characters, and watching them both traverse through their ever-evolving lives—periodically taking flight, though never leaving each other’s orbit—was as moving and hypnotic a reading experience that I feel is possible for a writer to create. While waiting for TSotLC, I devoured the brief and mysterious Troubling Love, as well, which I found captivating in a host of different ways.
These are not necessarily books published in 2015, but the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, which is why I’ve held off with this post till long after all the ‘best of’ lists have appeared. I’ve read 170 books this year, so you can imagine that whittling it all down to just 10 favourites is an impossible task. So instead, here are the books that spoke to me most at various points throughout the year.
When I Grow Up, I Want to Be…
Not to copy their style, but to capture something of their fearlessness.
Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment – I probably will have to read more of her at some point, although I’ve resisted the Neapolitan tetralogy so far (because of the hype)
Here are the shining gems pulled out of the constantly-flowing river of garbage that culture can be. Treat this as your reading list for the quiet weeks before and after the holidays, or buy any and all of these for anyone you forgot about this year.
A notable chunk of 2015 was spent binge-reading the works of Elena Ferrante, particularlyThe Neapolitan Novels, so it’s no shocker that the Neapolitan finale The Story of The Lost Child was one of my favorite reads of 2015. Seamlessly marrying meticulous prose with the ability to show a bird’s eye view of a city and its people, Ferrante portrays the paths of the two best friends with an honest complexity that forces you to nod and admit your ugliest flaws as you’re reading along. The Neapolitan novels in general, and especially the melancholic conclusion of The Story of The Lost Child forced me to reflect on the occasional jealousies, enduring loyalties and necessary hypocrisy present in my closest friendships. She’s basically a doctor that tears your guts out with her unrelenting-yet-compassionate prose and leaves them piled there in front of you, as you feel like a confused and yet grateful goddamn idiot. Also, she does an amazing job addressing the complex relationships between women and their bodies.
Read her shit, I guarantee even if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll have some sort of uncomfortable and necessary internal dialogues spark up. – Bronwyn Isaac
Literary Fiction of the Year by Katy Guest: ‘All this to savour – and then the thrill of a new Harper Lee, too’
(…) Speaking of classics, the fourth in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet was published this year, increasing the number of readers around the world who now realise Ferrante’s brilliance. The Story of the Lost Child (Europa, £11.99) concludes the story of Elena and Lila – one of the most compelling female friendships in fiction.
SAGA ADDICTS THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions). These four mesmerising books of love and friendship in southern Italy, beginning with My Brilliant Friend and ending with The Story of the Lost Child, will keep everybody quiet and happy over Christmas. RRP £11.99 each.
Elena Ferrante is the literary child of Jane Austen and John Steinbeck — her delicately perceptive social observation has an angry undercurrent of political protest. The Neopolitan novels – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — had me gripped all year. This series tells the story of two girls, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. Although their paths diverge, their lives remain entwined. It’s a wonderful portrayal of female friendship that also explores sexual jealousy, motherhood and class. The books are beautiful but never mawkish.
Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan novels are not that patronising put-down, “women’s literature”. For a start, I’ve been totally absorbed by them. A complex story of a female friendship, narrated by a woman, it’s tough and uncompromising, like Naples itself. William Boyd’sSweet Caress also has a female narrator, the photojournalist Amory Clay, whose work takes her to a variety of exotic locations (1930s Berlin, war-torn Vietnam, hippy California), all ripe for a TV adaptation, no doubt. It’s in the same sweep-of-the century genre as his The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, without quite reaching their heights (you can’t quite believe in Amory). Like all Boyd, though, it’s meticulously researched and a gripping read. Clive James, in Latest Readings, serves up brief essays that contain more wisdom, humour and erudition than one would expect from so short a book. A world in a grain of sand.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels feel like a cross between The Godfather, Lace and Proust. Every time you can’t take any more of the violence,corruption, sex and sausage factories, the writing pulls you back. The range of characters is astonishing, but it is the relationship between the two girls from Naples, Elena and Lila, that is so compelling. They feud, compete, support and love each other over the decades under the shadow of Vesuvius. It is a mesmerising tale of Italy in the 20th century, and almost never mentions pizza.
The subtitle of The Story of the Lost Child, “The fourth and final Neapolitan Novel,” broadcasts to Ferrante devotees and momentous and bittersweet occasion: the conclusion of the emotional, intellectually stimulating, and, at times, soap-operatic saga of Lila and Lenù, and their lifelong friendship that begins and ends in a working-class neighborhood in Naples. The Neapolitan novels are habitually referred to as a story of female friendship, however that description, especially in light of this stunning fourth novel, has always felt reductive. They are less the story of female friendship that the story of female identity, particularly female intellectual identity, and how relationships–platonic, romantic, and maternal–threaten, challenge and shape that identity.
Readers are highly recommended to enjoy these books sequentially, beginning with My Brilliant Friend, but for those who can’t wait to dive into The Story of the Lost Child may refer to our study guide, “Previously on the Neapolitan Novels.”
– Halimah Marcus, Editorial Director, Electric Literature
This was a year of voyages—and the tempestuous one of reading Elena Ferrante. I bought “My Brilliant Friend” in a New Delhi bookshop and finished it on a barge in Kerala. I read “The Story of a New Name”in a haveli overlooking the Ganges in Varanasi. In Havana, I stayed on the top floor of a spartan convent. I felt I should have been reading “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” under the covers, but it was too hot. It was even hotter in July, in Naples. I bought her first novel, “Troubling Love,” in Italian (“L’Amore Molesto”), in a bookshop on the Via Port’Alba. The protagonist’s mother lived on the corner. “The Days of Abandonment” is a slim volume, so I packed it for a week of sailing on a friend’s boat. It is a novel that you survive, rather than finish. One of my fellow passengers then lent me “The Lost Daughter.” When I came home, I found a copy of “The Story of The Lost Child” in the mountain of mail. Now I am off again, this time to Asia, but, alas, without a Ferrante. I wish I could take “Fragments,” a collection of essays and correspondence, with me, but it hasn’t been published yet. I plan to reread her next year.
These are the books we loved this year.
Jess Bergman, Assistant Editor
The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein): I gave myself over to the Neapolitan Novels this past spring, finally convinced by the one-two punch of Jia Tolentino and Dayna Tortorici’s essays on Ferrante. Not one to approach anythinglightly, I became an instant evangelical and converted even my grandmother to Ferrante’s coven. I read The Story of the Lost Child while moving from Philadelphia to New York—a fitting synchronicity, as I expect I’ll miss the company of Elena and Lila, and the streets of Naples, as much as I miss my home city.
Emily Firetog, Managing Editor
This year we launched Literary Hub, which meant I was only able to focus on reading (and finishing) short stories or extremely long books/sagas.
Short: Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, which I first read back when I worked with the small Irish press that first put out the collection overseas. Like everyone else on the planet I loved Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. Cheers for Lauren Holmes’sBarbara the Slut, which also has one of the best covers this year. And, duh, Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege.
Long: I read both of the fourth books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitian series and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (trans. Don Bartlett), although I only finished one of those (Lila forever).
Michael Moritz on Elena Ferrante
After turning the last page of “The Story of the Lost Child,” the final volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, it’s easy to issue a long sigh. Few novelists have ever wrought as fine and intense a portrait of the circles and connections that radiate and intersect with the strains (and occasional joys) of a lifelong relationship between two people. The saga of the principals, Lila and Elena, which began in girlish childhood in the squalor of tenement blocks peopled by hoodlums and shopkeepers scratching out an existence, has drawn to a close amid the disappointments, dashed hopes, volcanic outbursts and ruptured connections of late middle age. Yet between these mordant bookends there exists a work for the ages—filled with finely carved characters, intricately etched plots and the entire spectrum of human emotion—all translated into exquisite English.
Mr. Moritz is co-author, with Alex Ferguson, of “Leading” and chairman of Sequoia Capital.
San Francisco Chronicle | December 15, 2015 Updated: December 15, 2015 9:15am
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD included in the San Francisco Chronicle list of “Best Books of 2015.”
The best books of 2015: “Fates and Furies,” “Between the World and Me,” “Purity” and a whole lot more.
Every December we bring in book readers and sellers and critics and ask them to share their favorite books of the year. Some years there is lots of overlap on those lists. Some years, they’re all over the place. This is one of those sprawling years. Look around. Ta-Nehisis Coates makes lots of lists with “Between the World and Me.” Elena Ferrante is up there. Helen Macdonald, with “H is for Hawk.” Then it’s a free-for-all. But a rich free-for-all. Full of great reads. This hour, On Point, we put our net in the river for the best books of 2015. And it’s a good catch. Stay tuned.
— Tom Ashbrook
Top shelf: Critics acclaim the year’s 20 best books
The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions
The fourth novel in the Neapolitan saga is as compelling as its predecessors. Ferrante describes the friendship of Elena and Lila and sets it against the backdrop of Naples, a city as diverse as the two main characters.
In his posthumous book of essays, “And Yet …,” published this year, Christopher Hitchens criticized “the rebarbative notion that people should be more likely to buy and enjoy books at Christmas.” Real readers, after all, consume them all year long. Mr. Hitchens has a valid point, yet the year’s end is a time for summing up, in books as in other things. Hence the lists that follow.
The New York Times has three daily book critics. Because they review different titles, there can be no getting them into a room to vote on a single, unanimous 2015 Top 10 list. But for each there were favorites, and books that stood out from the crowd. In the lists below, we are happy to share them.
Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin present their books roughly in order of preference. Dwight Garner’s list is in alphabetical order, by author.
Janet Maslin stepped down from full-time reviewing this year, but she remains a contributor of reviews to The Times. Look for selections from her recently hired replacement, Jennifer Senior, next year in this space.
“The Story of the Lost Child” By Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions). This concluding volume to the author’s dazzling Neapolitan quartet spans six decades in the lives of its two unforgettable heroines: Elena, the conscientious good girl, and her best friend, the tempestuous Lila. Their intertwining stories give an indelible portrait of Naples, and an intimate understanding of the women’s daily lives and their efforts to juggle the competing claims of men, children, housework and their own artistic aspirations. We see how time changes (and fails to change) old patterns of love and rivalry, and how their lives are imprinted by success and disappointment and almost unbearable loss. (Read the review.)