In July I started reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Set primarily in Naples, the four-part series follows two friends — Elena Greco and Raffaella (known as Lila) Cerullo — from childhood through to their sixties.
These books are bestsellers and have drawn global acclaim, but one of the great mysteries behind them is the true identity of the author. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and there has been a lot of speculation about the person behind the nom de plume.
Last year, the New York Review of Books published a piece by an Italian journalist who claimed to have outed Ferrante’s identity. Given that she published her books with the repeated desire to remain anonymous, I feel that the media frenzy over uncovering her identity is in poor taste. It’s certainly unusual for bestselling authors to avoid publicity, but Ferrante clearly has reasons for wishing to write under a pseudonym.
The books are narrated from Elena Greco’s perspective and, right from the start, they immersed me in the characters’ lives. The writing is vivid and detailed, building up a picture of the gritty and often violent Neapolitan neighbourhood where Elena and Lila grow up.
The intense friendship between Elena and Lila is at the heart of the series, following the paths of their lives as they grow up and begin to diverge. The title of the first book in the series is My Brilliant Friend, referring to Elena’s perception of Lila as the ‘brilliant’ one.
At the beginning, Elena is the diligent, bookish one who admires Lila’s rebellious personality and looks up to her, while Lila is the fiery one who makes men turn their heads in the street.
Both girls have ambitions and plans to better themselves through education in order to escape the poverty of their youth. But only one gets permission from her parents to continue with her schooling while the other is married — and soon pregnant — as a teenage bride. Without giving away too much of the story, this early division of their paths shapes much of their lives.
Their tumultuous friendship spans decades, set against a backdrop of social unrest and changing politics through the decades. It’s hard to sum up the complexities of this 1,600-page series; among others, the themes encompass feminism, frustrations and thwarted ambitions, social class, domestic violence, love and power.
The first book follows the two main characters up until they are 16 and it is more slow-moving than the rest. But the pace really picks up in the second (The Story of a New Name), so I recommend sticking with it. I’m nearing the end of the third book (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). This series has engrossed and captivated me — I can see why these books are being hailed as modern classics.
What did you read in July? Have you read the Neapolitan series? If so, what did you think?