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Review: Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet

The last novel that I reviewed was Dolly Alderton’s debut fiction novel Good Material, and also her first book Everything I Know About Love—which I know is a firm, nostalgic favourite of mine and many other young women. In this article, however, I’m going to talk about a collection of books extremely similar in theme yet very different in style and content. These are Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – including: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. I don’t think any series, or indeed any novel, has ever gripped me in the same way. When reading each of them, they have occupied my mind constantly. My immense love for these books and Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love has revealed female friendship as being a very particular genre-interest of mine - if Dolly Alderton writes it well, Elena Ferrante writes it impeccably.

 

Contrasting to Alderton’s light-hearted auto-biographical book which explores female friendship through heartbreak, house-shares, parties, and endless nights out, Ferrante sets her novels in her own birthplace: working-class Naples. Through the four books she follows best friends Lila and Elena from ages six to sixty, navigating their tumultuous friendship and lives. Perhaps the aspect of the writing which draws you in most strongly is the author herself. Assumed to be writing under a pseudonym, Elena Ferrante refuses face-to-face interviews, and will respond to a lucky few in writing only, telling James Wood of The New Yorker that she will not speak about, or promote her books because “she has already done enough: she wrote it.” Reading the novels, one can understand the desire for anonymity – we know that Ferrante was born in or near Naples, and the writing reads as being painfully personal. Elena, the protagonist (coincidence?), acknowledges that she herself is writing a book about Lila – her brilliant friend – and one cannot help but wonder how much of the story is true to Ferrante.

 

The writing is translated by Ann Goldstein from Ferrante’s mother-tongue (Italian), and reads beautifully. It is a tale of two girls growing up together, both with a thirst for education and a fierce desire to do more than their families and move away from Naples to somewhere like Florence or Rome. The girls compete constantly throughout primary school, with Elena marvelling at Lila’s wild tendencies and her harsh tongue, and being amazed by the ‘novel’ she writes – The Blue Fairy.

 

Before middle school, Lila seems to be the one destined for brilliance, but whereas Elena’s parents are persuaded to send her to middle school, Lila’s aren’t. And so, the two girls progress separately, and Lila’s desperation for Elena to succeed begins. This thread continues throughout all four novels: Lila pushes her brilliant friend in middle school, helping her to study and attempting to herself whilst also helping her family in their shoe-making business. When Elena graduates, Lila pushes her to move away, and tells her her honest, negative opinion when reading a draft for her novel.  Lila protects Elena by warning her when she finds out a man is being unfaithful to her.

 

However, Lila isn’t without her faults, as she’s inherently jealous, bitter, refuses to read Elena’s successful novel, and when the friends have children, she compares them relentlessly – in fact, for much of the novels, she isn’t a likeable character. But what is likeable? There’s an Amy March air to Lila – propelled by the girl’s love of Little Women in the first novel. She’s young and desperate to succeed, and immensely talented, but familial expectations, and financial needs, force her to marry young and hinder her academic endeavours. In fact, the friends are infinitely similar to Jo and Amy – they’re more than each other’s brilliant friend – they’re sisters. Although years sometimes pass without speaking, they fall back into each other’s routines effortlessly. Into their forties, Elena is still jealous of Lila’s looks, and paranoid when her partner (Lila’s ex-lover) sees her again. Lila will still refuse to acknowledge Elena’s academic success, instead only speaking of her own business and children. It sounds awful and toxic, but such is the intense bond between female friends who are more like sisters.

 

Ferrante’s novels are a must-read for anybody. Her depiction of place, and her commentary on the politics of the era and how they affected her home-place of Naples is intricate and educating. Most of all, it’s a heart-wrenching, nostalgic story which will make you first value your childhood, then perhaps your best friends, your right to education and ability to learn, and finally, your mother.


Words: Madeleine Roussell, she/her

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