Wary of over-hyped books, I hesitated to start the globally successful and highly acclaimed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and the rest of her Neapolitan Series.
If I wasn’t attending a conference in Naples, Italy and the primary location of the series, I doubt that I would have even begun the books. Once I did start reading them, however, it was impossible to stop. There’s a good reason why these books are quickly becoming everyone’s favorite. You leave the books knowing more about yourself than you did before, haunted by how the words written for another person can seem so entirely particular to you. Ferrante’s novels are slowly built through memorable characters and plot, but the journey of nearly two thousand pages across all four novels is entirely worth it.
Ferrante explores the global within the particular, narrating the societal upheavals and changes in Italy through the story of two women — Lila and Lenu. One of my favorite scholars in my academic field described Elena Ferrante’s series as “literary ethnography”. To me, this apt phrase is the perfect description of her writing and her mission as an author. She is a detail-oriented and careful realist in her writing. For instance, she even takes time during an episode of domestic violence to note the hum of the refrigerator and the dripping water in the faucet.
In all four books, Ferrante’s novels revel in richness, in complexity, and her narrative worlds resist any easy answers.
The first book, My Brilliant Friend, was the most difficult for me to get through, particularly the first third or so. The book begins with the central premise — a best friend’s disappearance — and then tells the story of their friendship beginning with the girls’ experiences from age 5 to age 16. I found it a bit difficult at first to get into all of the characters, their multiple names, and understanding all their lineages and connections. Think Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or George R. R. Martin’s Lands of Ice and Fire in terms of breadth and depth of ancillary characters. Lenu acts as the narrator throughout all four books. With only a light dash of dramatic tension as a substitute for plot, I had to adjust to her meandering, stream of consciousness style of writing. I’d even tell you to skip this book, except that these early childhood experiences are quite formative for the characters. They often reminisce and refer to these moments as emblematic of themselves or prophetic of things to come. The last bit of the book, highlighting their tween and teenage years, saved the book for me. It was so gripping in its depiction of girlhood that I found myself starting the second book nearly right away.
Reading second book, The Story of a New Name, was when I began to enjoy these books and become a fierce evangelist for them. This book spans the girls’ lives in their late adolescence and post-adolescence. In this book, it was incredibly clear that Ferrante writes with an appreciation for the human condition with all its contradictions and complexities. Immersed in a time and place far from myself, I began to have that eerie moment of recognition of my frailties and my fears captured within this literary narrator. Like Lenu, I often swing between either drowning in self-doubt, or about to fall off the precipice of my superiority complex. Hearing her voice my ugliest thoughts about myself were deeply unsettling and terrifying to read, but also it was powerfully magnetic and magic.
As you work your way through the series, you get to know Lila, Lenu, their families, and their friends.
You know them too well not to care about them. Liking is irrelevant because you are understanding them. Thus, the “question of likability” that many female protagonists face gradually becomes irrelevant. Ferrante treats all her characters, not just her female protagonists, as whole, real people. Women do not serve as stand-ins for moral treatises on the virtues of virginity, intellect, or domesticity or on the danger of impulsiveness and impropriety. Post-war Naples, and the culture around the mafia, is a setting that’s dripping with machismo. However, under Ferrante’s careful hand, you see how men suffer under this patriarchal system as well. She is an unflinching author who writes from a deeply human place. Her words are bloodied. Her prose cuts not just to the bone of humanity, but into its marrow.
The third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is for me about powerlessness in the face of social forces like culture, norms, politics, and class that are larger than your control. Ferrante’s writing is unsparing in subject matter and treasures the details, no matter how disturbing. Her writing is lyrical, yet refuses to romanticize the brutality of life.
It would also be too easy to say that this book is about the “complexity of the female friendship, ” a sentence to which many other reviewers have reduced it.
Too often, I imagine books with the “complexity of female friendship” tag-line as the literary equivalent of frenemy type battles in the Mean Girls or Bride Wars movies. If not that, I imagine them as schmaltzy-equivalents of Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants or something light and gauzy from the Hallmark store. Despite their cliche-ridden and highly gendered covers, this series is nothing like any of these tropes of female friendship. The cynical part of me thinks this stands as an example of the way that women writers are reduced to being “less than” by predicating friendship with female. However, something powerful exists in the way that Ferrante sees that these women’s lives are bounded together by their gender and the possibilities for their lives often bounded by their gender. To me, the second book and the third book delve more deeply into these feminist themes. The narrator’s anger at the men in her life, who mansplain about equity and radically remaking society, only then to foist the housework and childcare onto her, is fierce. The characters, still, are often wholly focused throughout the four books on the ostensibly feminine trappings of life: children, clothes, weddings, housework, appearance, dolls, bracelets, and the men of their lives. Both Lenu and Lila struggle against expectations to craft their own works, though paint, words, and in the third book, even the zeros and ones of computer code.
Reading this book, the relationship between Lenu and Lila reminds me occasionally of the intense love — and inevitable tension — between siblings.
The intimacies and intricacies of their relationships skew minor differences in preferences, abilities, and personality into perceived gulfs of difference. And, the intimacies and intricacies of these relationships widens the gulfs and deepens the canyons. Even the title of the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, puts people into exclusive categories that are at odds. Lenu and Lila may try to put themselves apart by moving, by distancing, by pointing out their differences in education, class, and family status to each other. Lenu even tries to write whole sections of this book without Lila in it; yet then Lenu the narrator notes how by obscuring Lila, she’s telling a lie.
In the fourth and final book, The Story of the Lost Child, the relationship between Lenu and Lila becomes yet more tangled as they move into middle age. Lenu is compelled to try to understand Lila deeply and truly, and to make sense of her mercurial personality and her many reinventions of herself. By understanding Lila, Lenu also is trying to understand the boundaries of herself. I find this book to be even more introspective and stream of consciousness than the others (which is saying a lot), especially compared to the second book’s focus on tweeners to teenagers.
The novel also catches up to present day and to the original premise: Lila’s disappearance.
Lila and Lenu’s friendship reminds me of those friendships and relationships with people that dazzled me, that I felt an insatiable hunger towards the other — for their passions, their stories, their style, their words, their past, their accomplishments. I remember feeling freer just by having those high school friends who were fiercely honest in ways I could never be. They were unafraid to unsettle others or even be cruel, but I was terrified of when they would turn their brutal sights back onto me. I remember slowly packing my books away in college, hoping to time my exit to be able to walk back to the dorms with the person whose remarks on the day’s readings had “ignited my brain,” as Ferrante writes. I never wanted any conversation with her to end, spending hours talking in cars parked outside our destinations. And, as an adult, I remember being giddy at the prospect of margaritas with a fellow feminist, red-headed book-lover that I met on the DC Metro. I see fragments of all of these friendships in Lila and Lenu’s relationship.
There is so much more about these books that I didn’t even touch on: the city of Naples as a character as much as Lila and Lenu, the endless disillusionment with the expected saviors, organized crime, political corruption, the torture of mimicking the middle class with only the tools of poverty, and writing as an expression and experiment of the self.
Like all readers, I brought myself to these series and I found my whole self: the ugly parts, the cynical parts, the hopeful parts, and the shining parts. In Ferrante’s words, reading this book is like how pleasurable it feels to see a good friend and “to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”