The Neapolitan Novel Quartet by Elena Ferrante

review by Jennifer Spiegel

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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): doesn’t this four-book-in-a-row thing blow you away?

My introduction to Ferrante came on the operating table, minutes before I had both breasts cut off. Probably my most-trusted literary confidante had told me to read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (2005), and—for some no-doubt predestined reason—that was the book I took to the hospital to get a double mastectomy in the summer of 2015. I read parts of it, in a hospital gown with only socks on—no underwear. The protagonist’s marriage was over. Reality, contorted. I woke up and read again. My body, compromised.

At the time, I found her writing visceral, claustrophobic, beyond definition. Cramped, as if I might hyperventilate.

I recovered—from surgery and Abandonment—and read the four Neapolitan novels, all translated by Ann Goldstein. It wasn’t that I loved Abandonment so much; rather, I kept hearing about “Ferrante Fever.” Apparently, “someone” (a woman? a man? a consortium of Italians?), writing under the pseudonym of “Elena Ferrante” was making the literary world reel. So I took the plunge. I read all 1,682 pages. The novels became both tiresome (all those character names, like a crazy Russian novel!) and addictive (I couldn’t stop).

Guys, I caught the fever!

Ironically, I decided on a whim to ask “Elena Ferrante” to write a blurb on the back of my unpublished novel. You know those blurbs, right? Famous authors say something nice about your book: “Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, head-spinning . . .” – Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Great American Novel.

Why not ask Ferrante? I thought.

Because, really, wouldn’t Elena totally get my book?

I emailed her publisher. Literally, the next day, Elena’s real identity was revealed. This was the biggest literary scandal since James Frey made up parts of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. My timing was really, really bad. Some reporter-dude chose this week to unmask her. Elena Ferrante never emailed me back.

But what of her books?

I wish I could put my finger on it. There was something distinctly un-American about it. (The way translation affects a narrative and the particular influence of Ann Goldstein is perpetually fascinating to me.) Sweeping? That sounds so Gone with the Wind, as does epic. Though it is, in fact, sweeping and epic—covering the lives of two Italian girls (Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo) from a poor neighborhood in Naples as they leave behind their 1950’s childhood: sometimes they go to school; sometimes they fall in love with the same boy; sometimes they leave everything and everyone for Rome or for Florence or even for Switzerland; sometimes they dip into post-war politics and 1960’s social movements, flirting with violent rebellion, risking jail; sometimes they marry brilliant academics or neighborhood thugs, or they have illegitimate and legitimate children, or they see their own mothers and fathers die. The major consistency in their lives is their friendship, which plummets at times and soars at others. This is the story about two women. (There was no way on earth, incidentally, that the real Ferrante could’ve been a man.)

These never-ending books (too long?), with the careening prose (Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, described her prose as careening—and I thought that was particularly descriptive) are about identity. The mysterious author, who seems to be invariably obsessed with anonymity, wrote four tightly sequential novels about self-identity.

It’s also the story of a writer (Elena is the first-person narrator and a successful author). Aren’t all writers obsessed with identity? While one might read this for the portrayal of women, one might also read for the landscape of the writer’s mind. Rule Number One when writing a book is this: Don’t make your character a writer. So what does Elena Ferrante do? Of course she names her protagonist Elena and makes her a writer.

This book, for all its plotting (the girls grow up and get old), is truly a questioning of self-identity. The protagonist asks, Who am I? Who is Lila? Who are we in relationship to each other?

Towards the end of the Neapolitan novels, Elena suspects that Lila has been secretly writing a book. Elena wonders: “To write you have to want something to survive you. . .” Then, she ponders the possibility of anonymity: “To carry out any project to which you attach your own name you have to love yourself, and she had told me, she didn’t love herself . . .” What kind of person writes a book? Why does someone write a book? For what end?

Throughout the novels, we are aware of the uniqueness of Lila. She is implicitly superior to all. But we are also aware of her fear: “That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into shapelessness is what frightened Lila in the course of her life.” The loss of boundaries. Fuzzy edges.

Lila wanted to disappear.

Is this fear resolved? I’ll whisper the answer to you: not so much.

But I was reading for other reasons.

I was reading for the study in identity, the attempts or even failures in trying to know oneself or to know others. At times, the scrutiny of personal motive was staggering. Truths about oneself can be humiliating, and Elena Ferrante allowed her protagonist to be terribly—awfully—human. Sometimes, the protagonist was a bad mother. Sometimes, she sought fame at the expense of her children. Sometimes, she allowed a guy to walk all over her. I found Ferrante honest.

Over and over, Elena circles around the same questions: Who am I? Who is Lila? Who are we in relationship to each other? As I read the first novel, I wondered who was the “Brilliant Friend”? Was it Elena, or was it Lila? And at the end, I was still questioning: Who is the lost child?

A study of the self. For me, these explorations were enough to declare the Neapolitan novels a success.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.

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