Since publication of the first book in 2011, the Neapolitan Novels have made their way into the highest echelon of modern literature. The tetralogy was written by Elena Ferrante, a pseudonymous author who was said to be born in Naples, Italy in the early 1940s.
Over the course of four books, which begins with L’amica geniale, or My Brilliant Friend in its English translation, this series tells the story of the complex relationship between two women as they navigate the tumultuous terrain of postwar Italy, women’s rights, factory uprisings, and the savage Neapolitan neighborhood in which they grew up.
I found myself immediately addicted to the story, and so strong was my attachment to the novels that I put off reading the final book for several months because I wasn’t ready to part with the characters yet.
This series is brilliant. Here’s why:
Clear moral and psychological growth
The protagonist, Elena Greco, also called Lenù, narrates this series. She begins writing the story when her friend of 50 years, Rafaella Cerullo, or Lila, goes missing. To fill in the space her missing friend leaves behind, Elena recounts their story over many decades, starting when they were young girls.
Elena and Lila first bond over dolls, but they soon discover the pair of them have an insatiable thirst for education. As Elena becomes educated, her growth reveals itself. She doesn’t always make good decisions but her awareness of herself and others develops as she learns how to learn. She becomes a published and renowned author, later writing about her understanding of and involvement in Italy’s precarious political climate.
Meanwhile, Lila, who remains uneducated but for the reading she does on her own, doesn’t experience much growth personally. She is the same conniving and codependent friend when she disappears as she is when she is young. The most growth the reader sees out of Lila is her recognition of who she is, which is a nice juxtaposition against Elena’s growth.
What I consider to be Ferrante’s greatest accomplishment with this series is her portrayal of the relationship between Elena and Lila. It feels so real that I have identified within that one relationship many of my own. It’s as honest as a relationship between siblings, as emotional as one between lovers, and as dangerous as one between enemies.
The story arc takes these two women through a mountain of intimacy — an up and down so dramatic that a map of their interdependent journey would look like a vital signs monitor. Sometimes Elena and Lila spend every waking moment together, other times they live in different cities and don’t speak for months. Ferrante takes readers back and forth, back and forth so many times it’s dizzying, but she does it in such a way that it feels inventive every time.
Education as escapism
Elena, whose mother is against her going to school like most other parents, as the children are needed at work or in the home, has the fortune of being believed in by a teacher. This belief takes Elena far, and she is one of the few in the neighborhood able to pursue an education.
Both Elena and Lila feel intellectually inferior to one another, which drives each of them to pursue their own form of study. Elena pursues an education because she knows Lila believes in her, despite her fiery jealousy. Elena’s education eventually brings her out of Naples and, more importantly, out of the neighborhood. While she returns to Naples later in the story, it’s with knowledge she’s collected from time spent in the more intellectual cities of Florence and Milan.
I like Ferrante’s use of education as a tool to bring Elena out of the neighborhood because it was a bold move for a female at that time. Elena’s education allowed her to escape her downtrodden neighborhood, and then later realize just how poisonous the place really was.
Like the ups and downs of Elena and Lila’s relationship, Ferrante’s pacing throughout the story is unpredictable. At times, Elena spends pages elaborating on one single moment, one feeling, in such detail that it feels as though there is nothing left to know about it. Other times Elena fast-forwards months, providing readers with a simple summary of her activities in that time.
There is no rhyme or reason to Ferrante’s pacing. Stylistically it’s befuddling, but artistically it’s pleasing. It reveals Elena’s deepest cares and concerns by allotting different amounts of focus to the subjects and events.
The neighborhood is its own character
Ferrante put so much description into the neighborhood Elena was raised in and later revisits that it begins to take on a story of its own. The crime, the abuse, the decrepit buildings — it all speaks to life in postwar southern Italy, a dangerous place that Elena was fortunate to leave. The Neapolitan novels aren’t considered historical fiction, but Ferrante’s illustration of the city of Naples is such that it reads like a history lesson.
Each family is a story in itself
At the beginning of every volume in the series is an index of characters, and in later books, brief notes on events that happened prior. Each family has its own and often bizarre dynamic, and Ferrante throws them all together in perilous situations to create the story of the Neapolitan novels. She thoroughly develops each family, but because of an expansive cast of characters with classic Italian names, I visited the index often to ensure I knew who was who.
As an American obsessed with Italy, its people, and the language and dialects, I continue to be seduced by the characters’ names. Take the Peluso family, for example: There’s Alfredo, the communist father, his wife Giuseppina, and their children Pasquale and Carmela. Or the Cerullo family: Fernando, Nunzia, Raffaella (this is Lila), and Rino.
Women = power
A through-line of the Neapolitan novels is the theme of powerful women. In the neighborhood, the men possess power and they use it to abuse, abduct, destroy, and intimidate. But throughout all of the savagery, the women prevail. They fight, engage in politics, publish books, open businesses, protest movements, abandon abusive husbands, and create jobs for others. Their undeniable and eventual power is a much-needed juxtaposition to the vulgarity of most of the novel’s men.
The Neapolitan Novels are a brilliant addition to the canon of modern literature. Through them, Ferrante has given us the stories of powerful women that the world desperately needed.