Ms. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Come and Those Who Go, The Lost Child), are the kind of books that you don’t immediately expect to like. Written in a dense and reflective prose, with few breaks for dialog, Ms. Ferrante pulls the reader into the streets of the neighborhood, which is a construction that has become increasingly foreign in our globalizing and increasingly mobile world. Instead of streets filled with yoga studios and artisanal bakeries, Ms. Ferrante draws into a claustrophobic world of relentlessly unnecessary poverty, where the only people with any money are violent criminals and war profiteers, and the slightest sign of success creates bitter jealousies with the neighbors that easily explode into intergenerational feuds.
It is a fetid place that refuses to take a back seat to her characters, even though it is the seven families of the neighborhood that quickly draw you in and keep you turning the pages. Ms. Ferrante demonstrates a deep understanding of how places shape people, which is displayed in her opening scene, which takes place between Elena Greco, the series’ narrator, and the son of her closest friend, Lila Cerulla. The son, Gennaro, calls Elena to ask for her help, because Lila has finally left the neighborhood in the only way that she knows how, which is quietly, silently and without a forwarding address. The worldly Elena is barely surprised or interested in the news and she harshly asks Gennaro not to call her again. It is only much later in the novels that we learn that she has decided to write them and publish them in the hopes that her friend Lila will be offended enough at the action to come find her.
Elena and Lila are both brilliant, which makes them fierce competitors throughout their lives, although their lives take different paths when Lila is not allowed to continue in school past the fifth grade, when the years of free public education end. This is the real tragedy of the novels, as Lila’s intelligence and abilities are extraordinary. Elena, on the other hand, is graced with enough luck to able to continue on through university, thanks to the generous sponsorship of a teacher that helps fund her tuition and books. Her education makes her a celebrity in the neighborhood, where people begin to help in the family businesses by the age of twelve. Elena’s education increasingly throws her into contact with children of the middle class, who cannot imagine a world as filled with violence, poverty and petty rivalries as the one Elena goes home to at night. Instead of returning to a spacious house near her school to discuss her studies with her educated parents, Elena goes home to a cramped and dingy apartment, where her hours of studying make it harder to stay connected to her family and her childhood friends, who are intimidated by the power of education.
But not Lila. Although Lila is kept from school, she keeps up with Elena’s studies for several years by making heavy use of the neighborhood’s library and questioning Elena on everything that she is learning. But while Elena is safely in school for hours each day, Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe shop, where she cannot avoid contact with the neighborhood’s ruling Fascist crime family, the Solaras. Given no other outlet for her unstoppable energy, she works with her brother to design a custom shoe and opens a shoe factory to produce them in her father’s name. But to fund the shoe factory, her brother Rino seeks out the Solaras, which quickly complicates Lila’s life.
While Lila is trying to avoid a youthful marriage into the Solara family, Elena is going to school with Nino Sarratore, who once lived in the same apartment building as her family, but moved away when she was still in elementary school. Nino blends Elena’s worlds, as he is both from the neighborhood and the one who escaped it. Elena has always been half in love with Nino, but when he begins to pay attention to her and encourage her scholarship and thinking, particularly about politics, her obsession grows, as does her involvement in Communism, which is perhaps the only sensible reaction to the tragedy of Lina’s short education. As Italy moves farther from the war, and workers begin coming together to form unions, the political unrest in the country begins to filter down to the neighborhood, where the young people of the seven families divide among their political alliances, which creates problems as the political scene turns violent.
The Neapolitan novels are strangely attractive, given how much time Elena spends in reflective navel-gazing. The narrative style is as dense as Jose Saramago’s Blindness, with giant paragraphs briefly interrupted with a line or two of dialog to bring to life the unpredictable and harsh voice of Lila. But while Mr. Saramago gives unfettered horror for most of his prose, the Neapolitan novels are filled with love. Even at their darkest moments, as Lila and Elena’s lives take them towards the irrevocable parting that begins the four novels, the love that they share throughout their long history pulses and sustains the reader. Likewise, the characters of the neighborhood come to life in a way that shows mercy to even the cruelest crimes. Even at their worst, you cannot help but sympathize with people who have been raised in a place where escape is nearly impossible. It is only fitting that they begin with Lila’s final escape, which is the mystery that Elena cannot solve.
Publisher: Europa Editions
Publish Date: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
Paperback: 331 pages, 471 pages, 400 pages, 415 pages
ISBN:1609450787, 1609451341, 160945233X, 1609452860
Language: Italian, translated into English by Ann Goldstein
Rating: 5 of 5 stars