Will the real Elena please step forward?
The Neopolitan Novels is a series of 4 books written by someone who goes by the name of Elena Ferrante. For several years and over the course of many books and even more rumors and guesses as to who she was, her true identity remained hidden. When the final book in the series was nominated for the Man Booker International prize, there was a flurry of excitement as people guessed whether Ferrante would finally reveal her identity if she won. She didn’t win but she also didn’t come forward. Over the years, she has maintained that books don’t need to be linked to authors because once they are published, the story essentially belongs to the reader. In 2016, a journalist from the New York Review of Books followed the money trail from the publishing house that produces these books and announced the author’s true identity but she’s never confirmed so we’re left to continue speculating.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. And maybe it’s better not knowing because in the case of the Neopolitan novels, the author’s pen name is also the name of the narrator so while reading this book, it is tempting to think that a lot of the novel is autobiographical. Later, in fact, there is even speculation as to whether the narrator is indeed the Elena character so that just adds to the complexity and appeal of these whole package.
The four part series takes readers over almost 1700 pages of dense text and what is probably the most complete example of bildungsroman genre that I’ve ever read, in that the main characters are introduced when they are seven year old girls, and the book navigates through the course of their lives and their relationships over almost sixty years.
My Brilliant Friend, 331 pages
This first book opens with a woman in her sixties (Elena) being alerted that her childhood friend (Lila) is missing. Her lackluster response suggests that she isn’t surprised by the disappearance and may have been expecting it for some time. In explaining what may have motivated her friend to disappear, to not just wander off but to leave no traces of her former self behind, Elena, or Lenu as she is called in dialect, decides to share the story of their friendship, beginning when they are little girls, neighbors in a sort of slum in Naples, Italy and continuing until present day. It is a story that will cover almost six decades and will show the experiences of a lifetime add up to become a life.
My Brilliant Friend is the title of Book 1 in the series and in it, the author captures the angst of a young girl who, while she is dealing with the challenges of growing up, admires her friend who appears unaffected by the same situations. The book describes beautifully the tragedy of adolescence and teen years – the crushes and the fears and the extremes of feeling. Keeping track of the relationships can be a little confusing because each character has a given name as well as a moniker in dialect, and these diminutives are often similar to each other, but there is a character index with not just names and nicknames, but who each person is linked to.
Both girls seem to think the same thing about each other even if they have different ways of expressing their admiration and at the end of the book, it isn’t clear which one is the brilliant friend and which one is claiming to be the less smart of the duo.
The Story of a New Name is the title of Book Two and it refers most obviously to the character who gets married and whose new name also gives her money and power to express herself. By this time, the reader will probably be used to the continued domination and submission of Lila and Lenu’s relationship and the frustration that each one has at the consequences of their decisions. As children, they both had writing dreams but while Lila seems destined to remain a local girl, Lenu is the one who starts fulfilling those ambitions so the pages are chock full of emotional text that show the complicated relationship of two teenaged friends who both revere and envy each other and who alternately build up and tear each other apart as they struggle to climb out of the abject poverty of their Neapolitan community in their own way.
Yet, the dominant theme through the books is their codependent friendship so while Lenu goes off to college and develops a life away from the influence of her friend, her narrative skims these Lila-less days, downplaying in a way the things that separate them, perhaps fearing the effect of moving too far away.
As these are books about feminine relationships, several of the male characters are portrayed as weak, one who benefits from the ideas of the woman in his life but reduces her influence when he speaks about it later. However, at the end of book 2, a male character finally emerges who takes charge, has no selfish goals and is confident enough to not be threatened by feminine power; in fact, he wants to help empower with his unflinching support. This show of male power made the story that is set in such a patriarchal, male dominated society, more realistic and even more appealing.
In a stark contrast to the strong male that surfaces in book two, this third book is dominated by another young man with whom both girls have a relationship – Lenu, an unfulfilled teen crush compared to Lila’s more adult experience with him. Nino Sarratore is his name and while he grew up in the neighborhood, he leaves and reappears in their lives in cyclical waves. While he is not without his charms, not every character is wooed by him and his nomadic tendencies are described this way on page 87:
He was a frivolous, superficial man, an animal organism who dripped sweat and fluids and left behind, like the residue of careless pleasure, living material conceived, nourished, shaped within female bellies.
His presence epitomizes the man we expect, not quite strong enough to be a villain so he takes advantage where he can and the comparison between his relationship with the women can be one explanation for the title of the book – whether they will leave or stay with him when he returns.
The setting for most of the series is the run-down stradone community in which the girls grow up and spend most of their lives. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, some of the characters have left the neighborhood but return for one reason or another, or left marriages for one reason or another and in these pages, there is an exploration of those motives and the appeal of what is comfortable versus the lure of the unknown.
The Story of the Lost Child is the final book, and conclusion to this saga. Finally, after more than five decades of friendship, the story is approaching its opening scene where Lila has disappeared and the narrator retraces earlier steps to show the passage of time and to show the events that shaped their adult choices. Why would Lila leave on her own? Or, if she’s been kidnapped, maybe by the mob, why would they take her?
While there are shards of brilliance throughout the series, there are two striking points about this final book. One is the concept of dissolving margins that Ferrante introduced in book 1 and revives here: the more time people spend with each other, the more each individual changes until the differences, the margins, between them begin to dissipate. Physical characters, then begin to become essences, as they influence the people they are in relationship with, and thus, leave a residue of themselves when they leave, so their absence or presence isn’t linked to their geographical locations. This idea leads into the two characters who disappear during this final book where they never cease to be because you never know whether they are alive or dead and how that contrasts with the other characters whose lifeless bodies prove their death and therefore, the end of their stories. Considering that no matter what Lila and Lenu had been through before, they always came back to each other, it gives us reason to expect yet another reunion at some point when Lila returns, or that after spending so much time with each other, their margins have disappeared so that now Lila IS Lenu.
Book 4 is also where the clues begin to point to Lila, not Lenu, as the real narrator of the books. There are moments throughout the series where Lila is hailed for writing something brilliant that never gets published while Lenu writes something that is comparably lacking but reaches a wider audience. So at the end of the series, it is tempting to return to book 1 and cycle back through the links to see what you missed. It also adds to the intrigue concerning the identity of the author – who is Elena the author and who is Elena the narrator. Will the real Elena please step forward?
Each book received 4 stars but the series deserves five stars because the sum is greater than the total of the parts. All of my issues with the story – the disappointment with the characters’ choices, their irresponsibility with their children, the failure of the narrator to show the fascism and communism that she refers to many times but doesn’t explore in depth – all pale in the final analysis because this is a story that will probably leave an indelible mark on me and that enthralls me as much at the end as it did in the beginning.
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