As a children’s librarian, I read (and love) tons of books for kids and young adults, but I still find myself needing to return to my English-major roots and pick up a long literary novel from time to time. And I’m so glad that I happened upon Elena Ferrante’s series The Neapolitan Novels as my most recent choice. I’ve heard them hyped up for a while, but didn’t know much about them going in, and yet from the first 20 pages of the first installment, My Brilliant Friend, I was hooked.
The series of four books follows two childhood friends, Elena and Lila, as they grow up together in Naples. The scope of all four books – a daunting 1,700 pages between them that I nevertheless cruised through entirely in under a month – is massive, and follows the trajectory of their entire lives. Through this, they deal with an enormous swath of issues: family, education, marriage, motherhood, class, politics, personal and professional achievement, female identity, violence, socio-political upheaval, what it means to be from a place, what it means to be. The writing itself is brilliant, insightful and incisive, and completely unflinching –Ferrante refuses to pull even one single punch. There’s a reason so many reviews have referred to this series as a “masterpiece.”
Adding to its impressive impact is the fact that Ferrante writes under a pseudonym; she gives no clues to her identity, nor any in person interviews, and until recently, no one was quite sure of her true identity. Although she was eventually (and against her will) identified, I tend to agree with the idea that I’ve heard Ferrante quoted on – that once a book exists in the world, it doesn’t need an author, it needs only to tell its story. These books do exactly that, and near perfectly.
The series starts with My Brilliant Friend, followed up by The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.