Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels gained immense popularity and critical acclaim when they were published between the years 2012 and 2015. Strangely, at the time, the hype surrounding the books put me off reading them.
Only recently, I discovered that the first novel has been adapted for television. Keen at some point to watch it, it provided the impetus I needed to read the books first.
As I greedily began turning the pages of the first novel My Brilliant Friend, I immediately ensured that the other books in the series were on hand. Also, I abandoned the idea of spacing between the books and read all the four in one go.
Thus, in August in terms of my reading, Ferrante clearly stole the show.
Incidentally, My Brilliant Friend was one of my Top 10 nominations for the #100BestWIT list. When Meytal released the final “Top 100 Women in Translation” list this week, My Brilliant Friend was ranked Number One.
The Quartet begins with My Brilliant Friend, which focuses on Lila and Elena’s childhood and adolescence, proceeds to the second book The Story of a New Name touching upon their youth. In the third book in the series Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila and Elena have reached middle age, and in the last book The Story of the Lost Child, the tale moves forward to their maturity and old age.
Given that this is one long story spread over four books, it made more sense to talk about the themes in all the four novels put together. Talking about individual books would have been a difficult task without mentioning spoilers. Indeed, each book ends on a cliffhanger, and in every subsequent books the story picks up from where it was left off in the previous book.
Here’s how the Quartet begins…
The year is 2010, when Elena Greco, now in her sixties, receives a phone call from Rino, who is Lila Cerullo’s son. Rino tells Elena that Lila has disappeared. He is concerned.
Elena is not really perturbed. She recalls Lila dropping hints of disappearing – of deleting herself entirely – whenever they met earlier, and does not take it too seriously.
But when it dawns on her that this time Lila has left for good without leaving any trace, Elena sits down to pen the story of Lila and their lifelong friendship…
She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.
I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.
An Intense and Tangled Female Friendship
The complex friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elene Greco is really the heart and soul of the Neapolitan Novels. And it is a complicated friendship that ebbs and flows as time moves on.
Since Elena is the narrator, we see everything though her eyes. Elena recalls those first moments of their friendship, when both climb the steep stairs to Don Achille’s house, a man considered to be the ogre of fairy tales and feared in the neighbourhood.
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.
Lila is fiery, outspoken and fiercely intelligent. Elena is also clever and brilliant and does consistently well in school, but only through hard work. For Lila this comes effortlessly. As children, it is Lila who takes centrestage, while Elena is only too happy to follow her.
Both the girls push each other to do their best when it comes to education, books and learning – a respite from the stultifying environment not only in their respective families but also in the neighbourhood.
And yet, after elementary school, their paths diverge.
For Elena, her friendship with Lila has its ups and downs – a trend that is seen throughout their lives. Lila inspires and eggs Elena to excel in school and later on in her career. And yet, there are times when her frankness and meanness compels Elena to break off ties with Lila and keep her at bay.
And while as a child Elena is content playing second fiddle to Lila, the same is not the case in their adult life. As Elena gains a more public profile, she broods over languishing in Lila’s shadow… in the confines of their neighbourhood that does seem to be the case…
And yet next to her, in the place where we were born, I was only a decoration, that is, I bore witness to Lila’s merits. Those who had known us from birth attributed to her, to the force of her attraction, the fact that the neighbourhood could have on its streets an esteemed person like me.
It is not a straightforward friendship but one that is entwined with rivalry and jealousy in equal measure. As their stories progress and they drift in and out of each other’s lives, Elena always wonders whether she has ultimately gained the upper hand over Lila. Or was her success illusory and it was always Lila who had the edge? It’s a recurring theme that runs throughout the four novels.
For instance, in the first book, Elena ponders…
Sometimes I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to the high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers.
And then in the third book, Elena ruminates…
Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.
The Pulsating Drama in the Neighbourhood
Ferrante has done a brilliant job of conjuring up the neighbourhood in Naples where the girls grew up – a tough, poor and violent place. It’s a claustrophobic environment where violence rules the roost. Arguments and quarrels are settled through aggressive and forceful means. Women are regularly beaten up by their husbands and are resigned to their fates. The stench of poverty permeates everywhere.
The cast of characters, other than Lila and Elena, are also richly drawn and have distinctive identities of their own.
It’s when the action shifts to the neighbourhood that Ferrante’s writing really gets intense, feverish, and utterly compelling as she wonderfully captures the pulse of this environment, all the action and the dreariness.
Dreams of Escape
There is this set piece in the first novel that gives an early indication of how the lives of both women will eventually pan out…Having never set a foot outside their neighbourhood, Lila and Elena decide to bunk school one day and trek all the way to the sea. It’s Lila’s daring plan, and Elena not wanting to be left out agrees. They set out in the morning. They pass through the tunnel (the entry to their neighbourhood) and venture outside for the first time, but there is still a long way to traverse before they reach the sea. Halfway through, it starts pouring and the girls are soaked. Lila is frightened and wants to turn back and head home (although it was her idea in the first place), but it’s Elena who is now reluctant wanting to carry on towards the sea.
It’s a precursor to what lies in store for them in the future. Desperate to escape from her dull origins, Elena, through sheer hard work and a single minded focus on her education and career, manages to escape from Naples to begin life anew in the intellectually stimulating cities of Milan and Florence.
She does return to Naples later but with an awareness that enables her to gauge and reflect on her origins, an awareness that is refined by her interaction with the intellectual elite in Florence and Milan.
Lila, on the other hand, never ends up setting a foot outside Naples of which we are given an inkling pretty much in the first few pages.
This is also a time when they are hardly ever in touch, busy with their own lives. And yet, the bond of friendship still endures.
Pleasures and Pitfalls of Marriage & Motherhood
This theme occupies central focus in the third novel of the series. Elena has found her calling as a writer but she finds that the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood are occupying most of her time, stalling her creative efforts.
Elena frets over the pains she has taken to complete her education and the fear of not living up to her full potential as domestic chores bog her down.
Later, as Elena struggles to balance her work commitments and attending to her children’s needs, this is what she is told…
Think about it. A woman separated, with two children and your ambitions, has to take account of reality and decide what she can give up and what she can’t.
Interestingly enough, Lila after having to come to terms with a disappointing marriage, takes great pains to nurture her son’s development so that he can rise above the stifling fates that befall the men in the neighbourhood.
Thus, whether the right care or attention (or lack thereof) given to their children in the early formative years plays any role in shaping up their personalities is another theme that Ferrante explores in the novels.
Of Feminism & Charting Careers
The women in Lila and Elena’s lives were confined to that of a homemaker. Violence between the spouses was never far behind. Their ambitions were restricted to marrying well and having children.
In that sense, Lila and Elena are different as they fought to remain independent. While Elena capitalizes on her education to propel her career forward, Lila’s brilliance enables her to dabble in various business ventures with great success.
Meanwhile, Elena in her role as a writer reflects on the status of women and how what they are is based on how the men invent them, even publishing a book on this theme. And yet, is she also guilty of falling prey to this even as she becomes successful?
Was I lying to myself when I portrayed myself as free and autonomous? And was I lying to my audience when I played the part of someone who, with her two small books, had sought to help every woman confess what she couldn’t say to herself? Were they mere formulas that it was convenient for me to believe in while in fact I was no different from my more traditional contemporaries? In spite of all the talk was I letting myself be invented by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?
The Ever Changing Political Background
While Lila and Elena’s story plays out in the small world of their neighbourhood, their lives are not immune from the broader changes in the political landscape of Italy.
Ferrante weaves in many political elements into the fabric of the story and the impact it has on the lives of both the central and the secondary characters – the corruption, mafia, student demonstrations and protests, the left-wing movement, and the Years of Lead (which marked incidents of violence and terrorism by both the right and the left wings).
A Tale of Two Women
Ultimately, what makes the portrayal of Lila and Elena so compelling is that they are strong women with fascinating personalities. And yet they are not likeable all the time; they make mistakes, which essentially makes them real.
By virtue of her dazzling personality, Lila dominates the first two books. But Elena’s development as a strong, intelligent and cultured woman in her own right is also equally satisfying. And this is much more apparent in the final two novels.
Indeed, in a particularly trying time for Elena, her mother (with whom she has a strained relationship) communicates her confidence in Elena’s ability to manage and survive and deal with her problems head on.
An Intricate Plot…
The novels in the Neapolitan Quartet are superbly and intricately plotted, the writing is passionate, furious, absorbing, and highly addictive. One interesting thing I noticed is the way Ferrante plays with time. For instance, in the second book, a substantial part of the middle section is devoted to Lila and Elena’s holiday in Ischia, whereas in the last novel, an entire decade is described in probably the same number of pages. This in no takes away anything from the novels (although the Ischia section could have been shortened), but only adds to their overall allure.
To conclude, Lila and Elena’s incredible journey – filled with happiness, success, upheavals and sorrow – simply leaps off the pages. And I was sorry when I finally turned the last page of the final novel and had to let them go!