my-brilliant-friend_612x381-3The Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) by Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Published by Europa Editions.

Why do we read novels? Mostly, to plunge into the lives and stories of others, and to discover—in new and surprising ways— profound truths about ourselves. Truth telling—by women about women—can be thrilling, and Elena Ferrante’s honesty about her characters in her three Neapolitan novels is searing.

Though she’s published fiction before, it’s her Neapolitan trilogy (which is really one long narrative) that has put her on the literary map. As it happens, I was born in Naples (though I left as an infant), but you don’t have to be familiar with Naples or even Italy, to be totally gripped by the tale she tells, though some familiarity with the political turmoil of the 1960s and 70s in Italy (decades during which the novel is set) definitely helps.

Ferrante’s extended narrative is not only a literary triumph, but a feminist one as well. Rarely, in contemporary fiction, do we find a sequence of novels whose main focus is the friendship—from childhood to middle age—of two women. But that is precisely the main thread of these passionate and explosive books. Like 19th century fiction, they teem with a huge cast of characters, and interlocking sets of families, whose past and present occupations, vendettas and fates gain in importance as the women grow up. (A glossary of families, occupations and relationships precede each novel, and I found myself frequently flipping back to it.) However, the prism through which this cast of characters is viewed is the lifelong friendship—and roller coaster ride of emotion —between Elena and the mercurial, beautiful and brilliant Lila.

Not since Doris Lessing’s autobiographical Martha Quest series, which followed a young girl from adolescence to motherhood in post-World War II Southern Rhodesia, have I read a book so intensely focused on the inner complexities of what it is to be a modern woman as well as the contradictory emotions—love, jealousy, competitiveness, compassion—of female friendship.

Elena and Lila are daughters of poor, working class parents, and grow up on the outskirts of post-World War II Naples, an environment filled with violence, ignorance, female suffering, Mafioso networks and limited horizons.

Ferrante depicts a Neapolitan neighborhood that no tourist or even most middle-class Italians, know. In fact, though adjacent to a modern city (albeit one in the notoriously corrupt Southern part of Italy), it’s a miserable, backward place with few 20th century amenities. Elena and Lila’s families lack a phone or a television set. Hardly anyone seems to read a newspaper, go to a movie or read a book. At one point, for example, Elena and Lila, already sexually active, hear the word “condom” and ask each other, what is a condom? They have never heard of it. The same thing happens a decade later when they hear about something called “The Pill.” Their ignorance is shocking, but it perfectly encapsulates the almost medieval world, especially for women that somehow exists side by side with La Dolce Vita.

Elena and Lila are drawn to each other and develop an intense relationship—a true-to-life mix of admiration, jealousy, devotion and competition—not shared with other girls in the neighborhood or anyone else. As children and young girls, they are top students in elementary school. Lila is the leader (Elena’s “brilliant friend”), more reckless, intuitive, tough and intense. Elena—who tells us about her passion for Lila through devoted and often envious eyes—is the narrator and, therefore, when it comes to Lila, the unreliable narrator. Elena is convinced that Lila is imaginative, bold and creative in a way that she—the good, dutiful, unimaginative student—is not. Their hot-and-cold relationship has the arc of Greek tragedy.

Their fates diverge radically when Elena persuades her parents to let her continue on to middle school, high school and ultimately to university (the only woman in her neighborhood to do so), and Lila—in a recurring pattern of intensity and indifference—does not. Lila drops out of school in the 5th grade. Elena, on the other hand, encouraged by her teachers, goes from academic success to success. Without spoiling the twists and turns of the enthralling plot lines, let me just say that Ferrante shows us in minute detail, and what can only be described as volcanic prose, how both women struggle mightily—as students, lovers, wives, mothers and friends—but mostly fail to be at peace with their lives and choices.

51Cl-L-9JbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The first and best-known novel in this series, My Brilliant Friend, is perhaps the slowest and most dense. It was not my favorite but it sets the tone and provides the background for the entire story that unfolds. The narrative picks up speed—in fact becomes a page turner hard to put down—with books two and three, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, during which Elena and Lila blossom into incredibly complex characters, torn by love, lust, jealousies, motherhood, and disastrous relationships. Gradually, as well, the stories of Elena and Lila take place during a period of student and worker revolution, which adds a further layer of complexity to the narrative.

The fourth and final novel in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, will be published this September. I cannot wait to see how it all turns out, although it’s fairly clear, from the opening sections of My Brilliant Friend, that it will probably be far from a happy ending.

In Italy, where machismo still reigns, Ferrante’s fame—and refusal to reveal her real name —has led to speculation that she is really a he. Anyone who has read these books understands that only a woman could have written them. It’s my guess, as someone who published a memoir in the 1970s covering some of the same feminist territory, that Ferrante’s characters are lightly fictionalized versions of real lives, and therefore the author chose to protect herself and the world she grew up in, via a pseudonym.

Ferrante is a writer of such psychological astuteness and honesty that, despite the somewhat melodramatic story line of this tale, I believed every twist and turn, and have little doubt that you, dear reader, will, too.

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