It was pretty much a given that I was going to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. The four-volume series, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, has been a critical and commercial success, with the final installment, The Story of the Lost Child, turning up on many “Best of 2015” lists.
More important to me, however, was the fact that they were Italian. Three-fourths of my family is from Italy—the family of my Grandma Mary (my father’s mother) is actually from Naples, where the books are set—and the country has long fascinated me. I love its music, its language, and its art, and I love the culinary traditions passed down to me. We’re that family who makes pizzelles and biscotti every Christmas, who knows where all the best Italian restaurants are, who was putting olive oil in everything before Rachael Ray had ever heard of it. “No jarred spaghetti sauce, ever!” is our motto.
I came away from Ferrante’s novels feeling that I loved Italy more than when I had just thought of it as the home of opera, gondolas, and biscotti. I loved it more because I understood it, with all its flaws and foibles, at least a little bit better.So I was naturally going to be drawn to the Neapolitan Novels. And what I found was absolutely compelling, though maybe not for predictable reasons, considering all that critical acclaim. There is nothing elegant or sophisticated or pleasant about Elena Ferrante’s style; “blunt” would be a better word. Her sentences hit like hammers, all the better to describe the absolute brutality of the lives she’s chronicling.
The novels focus on the lives of two girls who grow up together in the slums of Naples in the 1950s, a place where children throw rocks at each other in the streets and adults do even worse things behind closed doors. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” our narrator tells us, dryly. Both girls are bright and hardworking, capable of transcending their circumstances but destined for very different fates that will plant the seeds of both jealousy and admiration in their friendship.
The narrator, Elena Greco, is a diligent student but well aware, from early childhood, that her best friend, Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo, has a quick native intelligence that outshines her own. The title of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, is deliberately, teasingly ambiguous; it’s something that Lila says about Elena, but Elena could just as easily—or more easily—say it about Lila.
But Elena is given opportunities that Lila can only dream of. When both girls are nearly eleven years old, Elena witnesses a terrible fight between Lila, who longs to go to middle school, and her father, who refuses to let her:
Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out the window, passed over my head, and landed on the asphalt behind me.
I was stunned. Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing.
I looked at her terrified while she tried to get up and said, with an almost amused grimace, “I haven’t hurt myself.”
But she was bleeding; she had broken her arm. (82)
Similarly, in the second book, The Story of a New Name, when Lila comes home from her honeymoon with a black eye and a cut lip, only Elena expresses compassion for her. The other women of the neighborhood, most of whom have endured beatings themselves, merely feel that she had it coming. She was too high-spirited; her husband, Stefano, had to show her who was boss. “In fact,” Elena recalls, “sympathy and respect for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.” (45).
It’s been hard for me to read these things, even while the story pulled me irresistibly along. It’s hard to face the truth that violence, abuse, and controlling tendencies are entwined with the culture that I’ve been brought up to love and honor.
And yet it’s nothing I didn’t already know. My Grandma Mary was forced to stay home and work in her father’s grocery store, though she longed for the higher education that her siblings were allowed to have. (Coincidentally, in Ferrante’s books, Lila also winds up in the grocery business for a time.) And my Grandpa Albert, my mother’s father, had begged to be allowed to go to high school, only to have his father throw a pitchfork at him and threaten to turn him out of the house.
Both of their families, the Emanueles and the Lorenos, were living here in America then, but they had been indelibly shaped by the culture of their old country: by its values, its priorities, and its ideas about power and control—specifically, about who should wield power within the family, and how firmly it should be exercised. And though things changed throughout the generations—Grandpa Albert would never have treated his children as his father treated him—the harsh memories lingered.
Reading Ferrante’s books illuminated that shadowy side of my heritage. I never really understood the deep-seated bitterness in my Grandma Mary, never knew why she was constantly trying to prove her worth and status, and, most of all, why she never got over the fact that she hadn’t been to college. She had a good life by almost anyone’s standards: The grocery business she took over from her father did exceedingly well; her husband, unlike Lila’s, was good to her; they had a comfortable home, children and grandchildren, and plenty of opportunities for travel.
Yet at the end of her very long life, she was still complaining that others had gone to college and she hadn’t. Though I place a high value on education myself, I couldn’t fathom why she could not put this one thing behind her.
It wasn’t until I saw Lila Cerullo become a clever and successful entrepreneur, much like my grandmother, that I started to understand. Elena, with her lesser gifts, makes the most of her educational opportunities, becoming a writer and professor through sheer hard work and determination. Yet she has few original ideas, always being overly influenced by the people and the cultural forces around her. It’s clear that Lila, given the chance, would have been a true star. But Lila never had her chance, and that loss reverberates throughout both women’s lives, shaping their interactions and their choices.
Few authors are as honest about female friendship as Ferrante: its ups and downs, its fragilities and strengths, its kindnesses and betrayals, the way that you rely on your friend for everything one day and the next day you feel like…well, throwing rocks at her. But through that very honesty, Ferrante reinforces the value and strength of such friendship. And this is a pattern throughout her work. For the most part, the institutions that she examines with such merciless clarity—families, hometowns, the people and places that have the most power over our lives—somehow come out stronger in the end. We see this pattern, for instance, as Lila faithfully cares for her elderly parents even after the terrible things her father did to her. It’s expected in her culture, but that doesn’t detract from its impact.
I would have liked to have seen Ferrante engage more with the church, to see if the same pattern emerged, but Lila and Elena both leave their faith behind them as they grow up. It’s noticeable, though, that the absence of religion seems to do no one in their generation any good; they simply exchange their outgrown beliefs for various forms of ideological extremism or selfish hedonism. The characters are often foolish and self-centered; their bad decisions can leave a reader agonizing over them.
The author herself is not a Christian, as far as one can tell from her work. (Very little is actually known about her; “Elena Ferrante” is a pen name, and she has revealed few details about herself.) Yet she writes about subjects that matter to Christians—home, family, friendship—with a significance that’s all the greater for its utter lack of sentimentality. In the increasingly fragmented world that she portrays so honestly, there are some things that last, and these things sometimes have a greater value than we’ve realized.
I came away from Ferrante’s novels feeling that I loved Italy more than when I had just thought of it as the home of opera, gondolas, and biscotti. I loved it more because I understood it, with all its flaws and foibles, at least a little bit better.
Something similar happens to the middle-aged Lila in the fourth book, The Story of the Lost Child, after a terrible tragedy befalls her—the worst tragedy in a lifetime of hardships. She develops what Elena calls an “obsession” with Naples, the city where she’s always lived but that has never really been anything to her but a backdrop for her struggles. Researching and exploring the place as neither of them ever has before, learning about its history and art, she uses “the past to make [the] tempestuous present seem normal” (439). At the same time she’s expressing to Elena her desire to disappear, she’s seeking out her roots in the ever-changing but ever-present city of her birth, simultaneously showing greater understanding and greater acceptance.
The series ends, like it began, on an ambiguous note—“Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity,” Elena tells us (473). But we’re left with the feeling that at least one of these women fully understood the power of people and places to sustain us, even when those people and places aren’t all that we need them to be. As I learn more about the legacy left me by that beautiful, tumultuous country we have in common, I’m grateful for her example.