Where to begin?
Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Novels’ were the most engrossing, obsessive, fulfilling reading experience I’ve had in recent memory, maybe since Sweet Valley High Super Edition Perfect Summer came out in 1985. Only the Ferrante Fever was way better because there were almost 1700 pages of exquisiteness spread out over four books.
It’s been a month or so since I finished shotgunning these books and I still can’t seem to find the words to adequately express how much I loved them. I read each of the books in quick succession: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, as if they were chapters of the same long, brilliant book.
The books follow the intertwined lives of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two young girls from a poor neighborhood in Naples, Italy. The neighborhood and its inhabitants are their entire world, over the fifty or so years we are with Elena & Lila, we get to know all about the politics of the neighborhood (and eventually greater Italy) and the characters who inhabit the place.
Elena & Lila are intermittently BFFs and the frenemies throughout their lives. Their bond forged as pre-schoolers when they mount the stairs of their apartment building to the home of Don Achille and demand the return of their much cherished dolls. Don Achille laughs at the girls and gives them money to buy new dolls, instead they buy a copy of Little Women and from there vow to become famous authors.
One of them makes good on this.
Lila is the smartest girl in class and often outshines everyone. Elena is the hardest worker and tries with all her might to match Lila’s brilliance. This is a thread that runs throughout the books. We follow the girls from school to marriage to divorce through births and deaths and shocking murders.
To say too much about the plot would ruin the delicious joy of discovery that happens throughout the series, neighborhood kids come in and out of the story, and it is always great when someone reappears. I mean, great for the reader, some of the circumstances are not so great for the characters. Plus, how do you explain a story that encompasses: poverty, class, education, friendship, communism, feminism, the history of politics in Italy, small-time neighborhood politics, adultery, divorce, murder, mystery, and just about every other good thing you would want in a book.
Really, reading The Neapolitan books is more of an experience than anything else. They’re highly addictive and once you finish one you need to tip right over into the next one, a wild race to see how it all ends and then you’re left bereft and in tears because it’s all over.
I loved these books. I’ve become a pusher, telling everyone I know to read them using breathy sighs, sound effects, and wild hand gestures. If you’re looking for something to totally consume your literary life here you go.