Today I would like to tell you about a tetralogy I have just finished reading, which really blew my mind away: The Napolitan Novels. The Napolitan novels are a series of four novels written by Italian author Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend (published in 2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) and The Story of the Lost Child (2015). These novels form a long bildungsroman following the lives of two childhood friends, Elena and Lina (also nicknamed “Lila” by Elena) from their childhood in a poor neighborhood of Naples in the 1950’s to their late sixties in 1990’s Italy. The books are narrated by Elena. The first book opens on Lila’s disappearance: Elena receives a phone call from Rino, Lila’s son, telling her that his mother has been gone for two weeks, taking everything with her and leaving no trace behind her, and that he is desperate to find her again. Elena then decides to write the story of their friendship, in chronological order until Lila’s disappearance – this story makes up the four books.
My Brilliant Friend focuses on Lila’s and Elena’s childhood (“The story of Don Achille”) and early adolescence (“The Story of the Shoes”). It takes place in a poor neighborhood of Naples where violence and filth are everywhere, and where death is omnipresent. Lila and Elena are both brilliant at school and their teacher notices it quite quickly. While Elena’s parents allow her to take the admission test for the middle school, Lila’s father doesn’t consider that a girl should study, and she has to stop going to school after elementary school. She starts working with her brother and father in the family’s shoe shop. However, she is very resourceful and has a creativity that is limitless. She also keeps reading and she is the one who helps and motivate Elena to study. Of course, this novel also recounts Lila and Elena’s first flirts and engagements.
In The Story of a New Name, a new life opens up to Lila while Elena continues her studies and falls deeply in love with a boy of the neighborhood. A vacation on Ischia is at the core of this novel: this couple of weeks spent on the island of Ischia radically changes the life of Lila and Elena. This novel focuses on the youth of the two friends – that’s the subtitle of the book.
Those who Leave and Those who Stay is about the “Middle Time”. In this novel, Elena starts her professional life in the best possible way while also starting a family. This is also the novel in which she clearly breaks up with the neighborhood, Naples and her origins. Lila struggles to survive but can rely on a precious ally (and I am not talking about Elena here). In the meantime, Italy is being totally shaken by political and social upheaval, and women finally start to get some freedom.
The Story of The Lost Child is split between “Maturity”, which recounts Lila and Elena’s lives as 30-40ish women and “Old Age, The Story of Bad Blood”, where Lila and Elena try to put themselves back together after a traumatizing event and finally enter their sixties.
These books are widely acclaimed by reviewers and have become an instant contemporary classic, and I can understand why. They are incredible! They are very rich and subject to interpretation but also extremely easy to read. They totally match my definition of a page-turner. I couldn’t put them down, and I read them almost in a row, taking only a break between the 2nd and 3rd novel to read a non-fiction book, but it was only to make my reading pleasure last longer. Please don’t judge these books by their awful covers! I’m still wondering how books with such ugly covers could have become best-sellers in the UK… But it’s great to see that this terrible editorial choice has not hurt these books, which truly deserve the success they got.
Why did I like these books so much? For one part, I really love the fact that they form a classic bildungsroman. They follow two main characters, but also a wide range of secondary characters from the neighborhood, throughout their lives, and it’s fascinating to see what this or that character has become. These novels also have a fantastic background: through Lila and Elena’s story, we also follow the history of a city and a country. In the 1950’s, Naples is a backward city in the hands of the Camorrists and the Fascists. In the end of the 60’s and in the 70’s, Italy is swamped with political ideologies and social movements, and several revolutions are at stake. Communism, Socialism, Marxism, union movements and so on take off. I don’t know anything about Italian history, which means that I didn’t get the full extent of the events described or just subtly evoked in the book and it’s a bit of shame, but at the same time it really made me feel like digging into Italy’s history and more specifically into the Camorra’s fascinating history.
And of course, the main strength of the book is, for me, the way the two main characters are depicted. The story is narrated from Elena’s point of view but it doesn’t mean that we side with Elena every time. On the contrary, I found that Elena was a very complex character that was difficult to understand, and I even started to find her despicable in the third and fourth novels. I find this aspect quite interesting. I know the reviewers found the depiction of Elena and Lila’s friendship very realistic and deep but to be honest this wasn’t the main point of these novels for me. Even if some aspects of this friendship are very well described, I found that its negative aspects were too emphasized to be really believable. Lila and Elena’s friendship is based on competition, rivalry, resentment and fear. I definitely know that these are real aspects of female friendship, but in the case of Lila and Elena’s relationship, I found it too overwhelming. It’s not really a friendship, it’s more of an extreme hate-love relationship.
Rather than the depiction of the friendship, I liked the depiction of the characters themselves. Lila and Elena are strong but flawed characters. They are deep female characters who don’t embrace the usual female stereotypes. They can be bad mothers, bad wives, self-centered and so on. In this, I think these novels are very feminist. Not to mention the fact that they tackle the issues of female condition in Italy in the second part of the 20th century quite accurately and in a smart way. Clearly, women are submissive, even if they’re trying not to be –they have no choice but to be –, especially in the first novels taking place before the 70’s and the progressive emancipation of women. They are beaten by everyone, fathers, brothers and husbands, they need to conform to what is expecting from them: getting married at church, giving babies to their husbands and not achieving anything of their own. But most of the female characters of this book, starting with the two main characters, struggle hard to break free from all of this. I’ll stop here because I could go on like this for years, but I think it’s a very interesting aspect of the novel.
To finish, in case I haven’t convinced you to pick up these beautiful Napolitan novels, here are a few praises for the books that I like:
“The Napolitan quartet . . . now seems to me, at least within all that I’ve read to be the greatest achievement in fiction in the post-war era.” Charles Finch, The Chicago Tribune
“In these bold, gorgeous, relentless novels, Ferrante traces the deep connections between the political and the domestic.” Roxana Robinson, The New York Times Book Review
“To the uninitiated, the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is best described as Balzac meets The Sopranos and rewrites feminist theory.” The Times
“Elena Ferrante: the best angry woman writer ever!” John Waters, director
Have you read these novels guys? Are you planning to do so? Also, please let me know if you have any Italian reading recommendations!
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa Editions, 2012.