Over the past two weeks, I read the first three novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan book series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I cannot stop thinking about these books.
(Warning: do not judge a brilliant book by its 1990s-Lifetime-Movie-esque cover.)
The books were recommended by my friend Jessica; she told me that they were about a female friendship that began in Naples in the 1950s and spanned several decades, and that when the books begin, we know that one of the friends, now in her 60s, has gone missing. Since I didn’t know anything else about it and I’m not usually drawn to fiction, I wasn’t really sure where My Brilliant Friend was going at and I was a bit slow to get into it. But about midway through it, things started to click for me. I really got into the story during Book 2, and by Book 3, I couldn’t read it fast enough. I thought there were only three books, so I was both excited that there is a fourth, but also disappointed that Book 4 won’t be translated into English until September 2015.
The books are about the highs and lows of a female friendship, yes, but they are also about family, class, identity, marriage, work, sex, success, motherhood (and the lack of desire to be a mother), and womanhood. The writing is beautiful and extremely honest; the characters are often frustrating (and at times extremely unlikable) and just…real. And the books are relatable, often in ways that surprised me. (I also think that a lot of the protagonist’s experiences would hit home for African-American readers.)
I didn’t know that feminist principles would be so central to the book, and they actually sort of snuck up on me. And I’m not sure why, exactly, because the way women are treated is apparent—at times brutally so—in the early parts of the book, when the main characters are young girls. But I think because the early parts are told through the eyes of a young girl, it’s less keenly felt. But as the characters enter their teenage years, you begin to get a real sense of women’s lack of choices and their lack of mobility, and by adulthood in Book 3, it’s just like HOT DAMN, THIS IS SOME REAL TALK. But it’s not preachy at all; I think what makes the books so good is how plainly the narrator talks about these things.
If you liked Middlesex and/or The Interestings, you should read these books. If you did not like those books…read these anyway.
These would make for a great book club selection, though I do think you’d need to read all three books to have a real discussion on them. It’s also the kind of “women’s literature” that can and should be read/enjoyed by both sexes. I don’t think you can talk about the treatment of women in this book without examining masculinity and the expectations placed on men. Also, fuck, it’s high time we all read more female authors writing about women’s lives.
As the books went on, I found myself highlighting a ton. Here are some of the quotes that really stood out to me…but don’t read them until you’ve read the books so they can unfold for you in context!
“But staying near her meant staying in her world, becoming completely like her. And if I became like her, who would be right for me if not Antonio?”
“Because I’ve had it; it’s always the same story: inside something small there’s something even smaller that wants to leap out, and outside something large there’s always something larger that wants to keep it a prisoner. I’m going to cook.”
“There are people who leave and people who know how to be left.”
“I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money; I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured.”
“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport: you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.”
“I knew very well at that that time, too, there had been shame. And uneasiness, and humiliation, and disgust: accept, submit, force yourself. Is it possible that even happy moments of pleasure never stand up to rigorous examination? Possible.”
“The more of a slut you are, the better off you are.”
“A male, apart from the mad moments when you love him and he enters you, always remains outside.”
“[The men] preferred to pretend that what happened at the hands of the boss miraculously didn’t happen to the women important to them.”
“He’s marrying me to have a faithful servant, that’s the reason all men get married.”
“Men, dazed by pleasure, absentmindedly sow their seed. Overcome by their orgasm, they fertilize us. They show up inside us and withdraw, leaving, concealed in our flesh, their ghost, like a lost object.”
“I was his wife, an educated wife, and he expected me to pay close attention when he spoke to me about politics, about his studies, about the new book he was working on, filled with anxiety, wearing himself out, but the attention had to be affectionate; he didn’t want opinions, especially if they caused doubts…even though I had had an education he did not want me to be capable of independent thought, he demeaned me by demeaning what I read, what interested me, what I said, and he appeared to love me only provided that I continually demonstrated my nothingness.”
“Maybe, I thought, I’ve given too much weight to the cultivated use of reason, to good reading, to well controlled language, to political affiliation; maybe, in the face of abandonment, we are all the same; maybe not even a very orderly mind can endure the discovery of not being loved.”
“But although we were all women, we struggled to understand what a woman was. Our every move or thought or conversation or dream, once analyzed in depth, seemed not to belong to us.”
Jessica had mentioned to me that the author of the books is quite mysterious—Elena Ferrante is a pen name, there are no photos of her, she’s never done a live interview. After reading the books and then a bunch of articles about her last night, I really appreciate that. The lack of an author with a strong persona allows you to get lost in the book and read it like an autobiography (which it likely is to some degree), but means there isn’t a clear ending in your head based on what you already know about the author’s own life. (I was surprised to read that a lot of people think the author is actually male; after reading the books, I genuinely have no idea why one would think that.) I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read her other books while I wait for Book 4; I’ve heard The Days of Abandonment is really good, but I’m a little afraid to mess with the perfection of this story in my head by introducing other characters and situations that are similar, but different. I…may just re-read these books again next week.