I do not know who Elena Ferrante is – nor does anyone for that matter – but she has written a series of novels that have latched into my heart and brain and will stay there. Like other characters in books that I love, the characters are what stay with me. If a writer can create a story around people who you forget are fictional, they have done a great job indeed.
I am not one to retell the plot in my reviews. Instead I like to get right into it.
First of all, the covers. They always say not to judge a book by its cover and honestly I judged these and judged them hard. I’ve seen them in my local bookstore many times, but skipped over them because, frankly, they look like boring Chick-Lit. Not that there is anything wrong with Chick-Lit – I used to be a huge Emily Giffin fan in my early 20s – but it is not a genre I enjoy anymore because I can never relate to or sympathize with the characters. With these covers I assumed that they would be fluff, written about women who are cliche and lead boring lives.
I was way wrong.
I had heard a few podcasts mention how great these were but I was skeptical. Finally, while visiting someone in Ohio, I stopped off at an independent bookshop determined to buy something to lend my support. I saw “My Brilliant Friend” (Book 1) on display in the center of the store. As my husband tried to rush me out, I thought, “Why not?” I took it to the register and walked out with the book in hand. It took me a few weeks to begin reading it and once I did I couldn’t stop.
I read the first three novels back-to-back with other shorter books in between. I did not start on the fourth right away because I wanted to savor the last book, these characters and the story Ferrante weaved.
The characters are flawed in a very real way. Every single person you feel like you could know or have known, could be a neighbor or even someone in your own family. Hell, they could even be yourself. I found myself rooting for and against every character, even the “bad guys.” In my opinion there were no good or bad guys. There were, of course, more obvious bad guys but when it came down to the root of the story, everyone was trying to survive the best way they knew how and the only way they knew how.
They all embarked on lives, careers, marriages, and parenthood in a way that is honest. People fall on hard times, people grow apart and back together, marriages happen out of convenience or out of trying to escape. We have all had a friend we loved but also hated, felt safe with and feared, celebrated yet resented. We’ve all idolized people or a life we long for, the what-could-have-beens and the what-should-have -beens.
This book has all of those things and so much more.
The Neapolitan Novels are not filled with jaw-dropping moments (although, I admit, I did at least once), I doubt anyone will cry their eyes out. I also believe that these are autobiographical novels…. But what will capture you are how real these people and their stories are. The plot is not one that is a “what happens next!” kind but somehow Ferrante kept me engaged so deeply that I felt I was in Naples, Italy growing up along side Lila and Elena. I felt their pain, their loss, their struggles, their joys, their lust, their anger…all of it.
When I read the last pages and last sentences, I felt like I had experienced an entire life. In fact, these novels span and entire lifetime from a very young age to old age. I’ve read a few books like this (most recently “Panchinko”) but none have done it so successfully as these novels. They are deep and engaging.
If you are looking for a real, gritty, honest set of novels about two female friends and their lifetime together, this is for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it!