Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Neapolitan Novels

The buzz around Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels has slowly built up to a full-blown literary frenzy over the past couple of years. So much has been written about the novels and the mystery of Ferrante's identity. I've seen nothing but praise for the books, but that praise was tempered by descriptions calling the books brutal or bleak often enough to give me pause. I was finally prompted to read them when my local bookstore started to promote and rave about the series. It's such a well-curated store that I trust their recommendations and they did not lead my astray with these. In fact, reading the series turned out to be exactly what it took to push me back to this blog after many months away.

The Neapolitan series tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Elena and Lila, two girls from the same poor neighborhood in Naples. Both girls are exceptionally bright. Elena is more reserved and is a traditionally good student who advances through the university level. Lila, who leaves school after the elementary level and marries early, has a natural intelligence that is often at odds with the tempestuous life she leads in the neighborhood. The first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, begins when Elena and Lila first meet as children playing in their neighborhood and ends with Lila's wedding at the age of sixteen. The second book, The Story of a New Name, spans the early years of Lila's marriage and the final year's of Elena's university studies. Although their lives follow different paths, the two girls remain closely linked throughout their lives, even through long periods of separation.

Ferrante's portrayal of this complex friendship is the hallmark of the novels, and it's the aspect that has been the focus of much of the praise they have received. The aspect that made the biggest impression on me, however, actually comes about as a byproduct of the way this friendship is portrayed. Through Elena's narration of the novels, she tells the story of her own life, but focuses most heavily on the parts of her life that intersect with Lila's, or that fall under Lila's influence from afar. She is so outwardly focused on Lila and Lila's impact on her life that she is unable to have a true sense of herself other than as she appears in contrast to Lila. There are a few moments in which the curtain is pulled back and she is afforded a brief glimpse of herself as others see her, not merely as a counterpart to Lila. The idea that it can be difficult to see an accurate picture of oneself is very true to life and is skillfully portrayed by Ferrante. Interestingly, she achieves this portrayal by going against the old adage that a good writer should show rather than tell the reader what's happening. Ferrante's style is very formal and verbose, with more time devoted to Elena's summary of events than to long scenes of dialogue. It somehow works to create an overall tone that held me completely enthralled.

I highly recommend these novels, and would love to know what you think if you've read them. I'm now at the halfway point of the series, having just finished The Story of a New Name.  I had every intention of trying to spread out the remaining books, but the last few sentences of book two left me so eager to find out what happens next that I'm fairly certain I'll be running to the bookstore this week to pick up Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay


  1. Lovely to see you posting again. I have bought her The Days of Abandonment but have yet to read it ... I will move it closer to the top of the 'to be read' stack(s).

    1. Thanks, Anne. I may try some of her standalone novels once I'm done with the series.



Related Posts with Thumbnails