• Sarah Taylor

Review: Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

Friendship, violence and boundaries: a beautiful and brilliant four-part tale


I recently read a review of Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series describing all the different locations in which the reviewer and her friends had read the books. When I started the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, I knew little about them other than, according to my mother, they described the rebuilding of Italy post-World War II, from a nation of poverty to modernity and wealth, through the friendship of the two central characters. Two months and four books later, this series has accompanied me throughout lockdown. Similarly to this reviewer, I can remember where I was for the pivotal moments: sitting in the garden in Cambridge aghast at Lenù’s suffering during the second summer in Ischia with Lila and Nino; lying in Clissold Park after a bike ride when Lenù and Nino reconnect; lounging in the Victoria Park sunshine while Lenù finds out about Nino’s actions.

My reading habits give much away about my lockdown tendencies: I tried to be outside as much as was possible (and governmentally prescribed). I was also, for the first three months of lockdown, away from my friends. Like lots of people I know, I left London and returned to my family home. Normally, I live with a group of best friends and see friends regularly: our daily lives are entwined and engrained.

Coronavirus and lockdown put an end to that. For the first time ever, I had no physical friendship group. Of course we did the Zoom quizzes and video calls, the activity on our group chat reached new levels, and I caught up with my best friend from two metres away whenever I could. But I could no longer see or hug or just be with my friends. There’s something to be said for physical intimacy between female friends and no Zoom call can replicate that.

Reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, a quartet examining the lives of two best friends from their early childhood until middle age, was perfectly timed. This tender and universal depiction of female friendships is the perfect antidote to physical relationships interrupted.

My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) and The Story of the Lost Child (2015) are written by Elena Ferrante, a pseudonymous Italian writer, and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Over the course of several decades, Ferrante has written several novels, articles, letters and essays – all under her anonymous guise. Despite efforts to unmask the “real” Ferrante, her anonymity endures. Ferrante’s choice to use a pseudonym is based on the separation of writers and their work. “I believe,” Ferrante wrote in a letter in 1991, “that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” Unlike, say, J. K. Rowling (who infamously has little respect for Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’), Ferrante gives the ownership of her characters and stories away to the readers.

The series tells the story of two women from Naples, the narrator Elena (Lenù) Greco, and her friend Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo. At the start of the series, a middle-aged Lenù is recounting their lives after Lila disappears. Their childhoods start similarly – two bright and curious young girls growing up in poverty-stricken Naples in the 1950s – but their paths diverge when Lenù continues with her education and Lila marries Stefano Caracci, the owner of the local grocery shop, at the age of sixteen. Lenù attends university in Pisa, finds success as a writer, marries an academic and moves to Florence to start a family. Lila stays in Naples, leaves her abusive and unloving marriage with Stefano, works in a sausage-packing factory and becomes a computer programmer. By the end of the series both women are back in Naples living in the same apartment block: their lives as entwined and inextricable as when they were children.

At the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, we are introduced to Lenù and Lila as eight-year-olds, nervously climbing the stairs to the apartment of Don Achille. Don Achille is the neighbourhood loan shark, and through the eyes of these two young girls, he is the “ogre of fairy tales”. Lenù and Lila are in search of their lost dolls, and naturally place the blame on this evil local monster. Several decades later, the two women are back in the same neighbourhood, this time with real children instead of toys. In the last novel, The Story of the Lost Child, the titular horror takes form: Lila’s youngest child Tina goes missing and is never found. After many years of suffering, Lila, depressed and alienated, disappears from Naples. At the end of the series Lenù receives a package from Lila who she has not spoken to or seen in many years. In a neat bookending, the package contains the two lost dolls. Their paths may shift and diverge, but Lenù and Lila’s lives remain circularly bound to one another’s.

Nino Sarrotore, the son of a local poet and womaniser, is a continuing presence throughout. Lenù has a childhood infatuation for him, which is despairingly crushed when Nino lusts after Lila instead on an adolescent summer spent on the island of Ischia. The series comprises over 1,500 pages and spans several decades, yet the bulk of the second novel, The Story of a New Name, largely focuses on this one summer. This is where the strength of Ferrante’s storytelling lies. In some passages, whole years and decades pass within a few lines. At other points, hundreds of pages are spent dissecting one formative moment. The summer in Ischia is one of these instances: a brief period of time which shapes Lenù and Lila’s futures.

Many years after Lila and Nino’s passionate romance comes to an end, Lenù herself begins an adulterous affair with Nino during her marriage to Pietro. There is a jealousy between Lila and Lenù when it comes to Nino, as one would expect in a love triangle, but it is not merely about love. For Lila and Lenù, Nino seemingly represents a life they both desire. He fits naturally into the intellectual and activist circles of the 1970s, his name is well known throughout the country and he later becomes a politician. He is intelligent, engrossing and well spoken – or at least it seems that way on the surface. Lenù realises in the last novel, The Story of the Lost Child, that Nino has relied on women to help him his whole life. “And I myself,” she thinks after their break-up, “… wasn’t I in fact a well-connected woman … useful, in short, to his career? … He was above all a cultivator of useful relations.”

Through the lives of Lenù and Lila, Ferrante paints the history of modern Italy. The series explores the growth of communism, political activism, student and worker revolts and class inequalities. There are technological and modern advances: computers, IBM and the ease of transatlantic travel. Lila and Lenù witness the rise of second-wave feminism and feminist theory (Lenù writes a book exploring the “invention of women by men”) and the emergence of the Pill, and the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, interrogates sexual politics and gender divisions.

There’s also fascism and violence. Don Achille, the ogre of the neighbourhood, turns out to represent a far more menacing and dangerous undercurrent of Naples. Many of Lenù and Lila’s childhood peers grow up to work in the Camorra, a Mafia-like crime syndicate, and the Solara family, who run the local Mafia ring, dominate the neighbourhood. The Solara mother, Manuela, keeps a “little red book” filled with the town’s unpaid debts. Lenù and Lila’s lives are haunted by violence from their births. In one scene, after Lila expresses her desire to continue in school, Lila’s father breaks her arm by throwing her out of a window. Boys throw rocks at them as children. They witness fights and brawls. They are hit, abused and raped by men including their husbands. Political murders occur on their doorsteps. Even Tina’s disappearance at the end has an ambiguous connection to the Solara brothers, Marcello and Michele.

But Lenù and Lila are formed from this violence, and can use it to their advantage. The abuse Lenù suffers at the hands of a much older man whilst in Ischia is later the foundation for her first novel, and the beginning of her academic success. Lila, a highly intelligent and shrewd woman, continually stands up to the Solara brothers and manipulates them to her own will. The physical violence is overarchingly toxic and masculine, but at times there is also emotional instability between Lenù and Lila. Their lives are so bound with one another’s that their friendship can be all-consuming and overwhelming, with rivalries and intense arguments. Yet it is this female friendship, which shifts and nuances and intensifies, which is the most significant theme throughout. I started the series assuming Lila was the “brilliant friend” in question. Lenù constantly compares herself to Lila, is envious of her raw intelligence and her looks, and feels like her “pale shadow”. But by the end, we realise that the “brilliant friend” is in fact Lenù. The interchangeability of identities is a sign of their blended lives.

The series is made up of countless boundaries. There is tension between academia and activism, writing and working, which Ferrante plays with throughout. Lenù, despite being incredibly intelligent and educated, is distanced from the realities of workers and student activism of 1970s Europe. Lila, as a poor woman working in miserable conditions in a meat factory, finds herself becoming the voice of the proletariat. Another division takes form between literature and science, creativity and rationality. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila and her new partner Enzo have taught themselves computing and are successfully working at IBM. On the opposite side, Lenù finds herself drawn deeper in literary circles, producing endless new material to varying degrees of success. Even geography becomes divided: Lila barely leaves Naples, whereas Lenù lives and travels across Europe.

It is within these boundaries that Lenù and Lila’s friendship has the most friction and complexities. In an interview with Ferrante in The Paris Review from 2015, she describes Lila as having a “lack of boundaries”. As a child, this is shown through her boldness, her ferociousness and her confidence in standing apart from her peers. As she grows older, these boundaries become darker and more menacing: a feeling of detachment and instability both around and within her. In My Brilliant Friend, Lila describes to Lenù her feeling of “dissolving margins”.* At a New Year’s Eve party in Naples in 1958, Lila recounts to Lenù how “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared”. This experience of dissolving margins, which later is referred to as “dissolving boundaries” throughout the series, resembles a physical and psychological sensation; an out-of-body experience, a panic attack and an existential exhaustion at the changing nature of the world. In The Story of the Lost Child, following the Irpinia earthquake of 1980, Lila attempts to explain “the feeling of the world she moved in” to Lenù. “She said,” narrates Lenù, “that the outlines of things and peoples were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread … She had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries.” Indeed, at the end of the series, Lenù explains that her narration of their lives is an attempt to rewrite Lila away from these margins, to give her “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve”. Lila may disappear physically, but Lenù successfully solidifies her presence in the narrative.

Ferrante paints a painfully realistic and emotional description of friendship between women. When I finished the series, I initially felt a sense of loss. I had been so engrossed in this friendship for several months, and it felt strange, oddly betraying, to read another book afterwards. Luckily, I have the well-reviewed HBO TV series My Brilliant Friend to start, and now back in London, I also have my real female friendships back. The Neapolitan Novels, alongside this period of physical distancing, have made me value and appreciate these relationships even more.

* The name of this blog is a nod to this phrase. I started putting together ideas for the blog whilst reading this series, and knew that I wanted to review these books specifically once finished. I felt the name was a neat literary allusion to Ferrante’s works, as well as representing a blurring of ideas and gender stereotypes: themes I wanted this blog to convey.