Home Again

My friend Meg, a translator of Spanish and Catalan literature, was living and working in Barcelona winter semester, so of course I had to visit her. Neither of us had been to the País Vasco (Basque Country) or Galicia, so we decided that beyond Barcelona, we would head northwest to San Sebastián in Basque Country and then to Santiago de Compostela and Fisterra in Galicia, which is the westernmost part of Spain and just north of Portugal. (There are photos on Instagram under #MarisaInSpain.)

It was an excellent spring break, full of seaside vistas and pastries and train travel and tapas and beautiful old buildings. We stayed in nice pensiones with simple, well-designed rooms that surprisingly only cost us each about €20 per night (the nicest rooms I’ve ever booked). We alternated long walks and sightseeing with cafes, park benches, and the occasional siesta, which was a good balance (although it would have been better if we hadn’t been working on our laptops during so much of the downtime).

Coming home, I saw Ann Arbor in a different light. I was surprised by how wide the streets of downtown Ann Arbor felt after crisscrossing the streets of Gràcia in Barcelona for days, where tree canopies shadow one-way lanes that pedestrians fill until a motorbike or car appears. My little city’s streets disappointed me a bit: their width seemed so gratuitous. The parked cars and wide lanes felt like a canyon separating the people and shops on either side of the road. Of course, Ann Arbor’s downtown streets aren’t wide at all compared to many others, but I felt the change from the neighborhood in Barcelona acutely.

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Ann Arbor’s Main Street, packed with International Women’s Day strikers.

Still, Ann Arbor is home, and there are many things I know I’ll miss when that’s no longer true.

For years now we’ve wondered when we might leave. Cooper and I first thought we might move to Detroit several years ago, when he finished his PhD coursework. I resolved to do all our favorite Ann Arbor things then, to say yes to anything fun and enjoy a final summer here, a perfect autumn of cider mills and walks in the Arb(oretum), which we did so often when we were in college. But staying put was easier and cheaper than uprooting ourselves, and once I found a mythical job with benefits, there was another incentive to stay.

So we waited, unsure when Cooper would finish or where he might find a job. More than once I thought the next year would be our last year here. In the moments when we realize our lives could soon take a new turn, the familiar becomes more precious. This encourages us to take advantage of what we can while we’re still here: to go to the film festival during the work week, to visit all the parks and restaurants we still haven’t been to. It also made it difficult to decide last summer if we should postpone our Lake Superior vacation for Iceland. What if it was our last summer near the Great Lakes?

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The Huron River at Island Park.

I’ve looked forward to the adventure of a new place for years. I love my apartment, enjoy living in this pretty college town that is populated by friends and family. But I’ve long looked forward to putting down firmer roots in my next home, living in a neighborhood where people get to know each other, instead of so many neighbors cycling in and out every year as they graduate from college. I don’t have a history of being involved in my community; I am not good at reaching out and making friends, at sharing myself in person, carrying on a conversation when I’m uncomfortable. So for a while, I procrastinated. I wanted to be involved in issues I care about, but I thought I’d wait to lead life differently wherever we ended up.

But I got sick of waiting. I didn’t do as much as I should have, but I helped register people to vote. I volunteered with the campaign to fund our Regional Transit Authority.

Then the election happened. I still didn’t know where we’d be in a year, but waiting to take action was no longer an option. So now I’m putting down roots in the place that I expect to leave. Of course, there’s no harm in doing so, but it feels a little odd sometimes. After ten years here, I’m seeing things from a new angle, getting a more human-centric view of this place, and it makes the looming farewell even more bittersweet.

There’s a lot for me in Ann Arbor. And the more community events I go to, the more people I connect with and things I learn, the more I love this town. I’ve known all along that this city is full of like-minded people, but now that I’m experiencing it more fully, I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to imagine going somewhere else.

We’d imagined life in Cleveland, which could be a good place for Cooper to work and for us to live, and is still pretty close to home. I was excited about a program in Austin that Cooper was interested in, thinking it would be fun to live in a completely different place for a year or two, until maybe he’d get hired at a university back in the Great Lakes region. We were prepared to go almost anywhere, if there was a good job for him. Finding a tenure-track position is no mean feat.

We talked with friends about how we hoped for the sliver of a chance that we could make the smaller move back to the Detroit area; the want was still strong, our hearts were still invested in the city (and our parents who live nearby, and our people across the state). We talked also of how I’d always wanted to move away for a while, experience a bigger city or a different climate, new people and perspectives. That comes with the exciting but also troubling possibility that somewhere else would be perfect for us, and we wouldn’t come back.

In the past couple years, I’ve drawn closer to this state of mine. I’ve always loved the lakes, but learning about Michigan’s history bored me as a child. From an early age, I disliked Metro Detroit’s massive sprawl (ugly and inconvenient); later, I hated how dull it was to live in a suburb so committed to quiet uniformity, and dreamed of leaving.

In the time since I graduated from college, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed in Ann Arbor, I’ve learned a lot more about the state, its politics, our cities and towns and natural wonders. I want things to get better. I want people to be safe, wildlife to be protected, our governments to help instead of harm us.

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Kerrytown in springtime.

By October, it was becoming clear to me, though I couched it in a sea of maybes, that if we want to build connections and be a part of communities we care about, if life is fleeting and we don’t really know how long we have, if these battles are critical now—and they are—then maybe it’s foolish to think that in my overall life trajectory I would still prefer to have moved away and then come back, when I have no control over the distant future and only some control of what’s coming next. So maybe, maybe the best thing is to finally do the things we want to do right now, live somewhere in our lifelong home state, which has so much going for it and yet so many profit-hungry Republicans stacked against it, to work to make the place above all other places in our lives a better place, see our best friends on the weekends and help out our parents and hopefully be part of the city we have watched and cared for and had so many beautiful memories in already.

Maybe that’s the best thing to do.

A Stack of Books for Three Days Up North

img_0355This is the serendipitously color-coordinated stack of books I took to read up north between Christmas and the new year. I set my sights high.

I’m not ready to round up the best books I read in all of 2016, so I guess I never will be. I know in my last post I said that I’d been writing, that I’d be here soon, that I had a web of thoughts about the past ten years and my next few years, about ways of living and where it all comes from. If I didn’t quite say all that, it’s still what I meant.

I’m still tangled up in that web, and in a web of articles left open to read later, emails to myself of things to think about. I think the only way forward is to snip my way out of the web for a few moments and write about these few books, separate from all the rest. Plus, the books accidentally match so well. I had to share.

* * *

fullsizerenderIn keeping with my recent overarching over-ambition for words and ideas and open browser tabs outlined above, I packed 987 pages of reading for our last trip to Manistee. We drove up on a Wednesday and home again to Ann Arbor that Saturday, New Year’s Eve. So that was two full days, plus one evening. Not much time at all. Here are all the books I tried to read:

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, by Rebecca Solnit

Savage Dreams has been near the top of my reading list since Cooper gave it to me for my birthday in June, an absolutely perfect and compelling birthday present, but somehow other books kept sneaking in ahead of it. I didn’t actually get past the introduction until we were back home in Ann Arbor, where I fell asleep with it open waiting for the new year to begin, but it was the first book I packed for Manistee. (In 2017 I became devoted to it: two days later I was two hundred pages in.)

I would like to be Rebecca Solnit. She’s an excellent writer, an explorer and researcher of many different topics, an impassioned and informed citizen. This book is about the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government detonated nuclear bombs in the desert until the 1990s, and about Yosemite National Park, America’s idealized Garden of Eden. She writes about the history of these places, about how the very different landscapes were appreciated, devalued, exploited—about the crimes of the U.S. government against the land and against people who have made their lives there (for generations and for centuries), about wins and losses of Native Americans, peace protesters, ranchers, and environmentalists. She also writes about her personal experiences as an activist at the Test Site and a researcher at Yosemite.

I’m sure I’ll write about it more; first place on the packing list was very much deserved. But like I said, I didn’t really read this one during those not-quite-three days up north.

Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett

After packing Savage Dreams, I grabbed book two in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, because vacation is really meant for reading fiction, right? Plus I’d been reading it since the train home from Ottawa (a tiny peek at Ali’s and my tiny trip can be found at #MarisaInOttawa), and I didn’t want to lose my momentum—there are a lot of details to keep track of when protecting the child Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th-century French court. I finished Part 1 (of 4) before I let myself start on Savage Dreams.

Nowhere: Travel Stories (First Edition Print 2017) edited by Porter Fox

Cooper gave me the Nowhere print magazine for Christmas, and so I brought it with me up north. I read a few of the opening pieces, and enjoyed a wonderful photo essay from Standing Rock.

Nowhere is an online travel journal, now supplemented with an annual print edition. Cooper found it after sharing one of Porter Fox’s articles with me, a piece from Fox’s forthcoming book on the US-Canada border (right up my alley!). That article is about the author’s freighter voyage from Montreal’s port on the Saint Lawrence River, through four Great Lakes and the locks that make them passable for such large ships, all the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario, north of Minnesota. Even better was Fox’s article published in October about canoeing the wild Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. As a teenager I would have never expected to romanticize Ontario to the extent I do today, but I do: while Ontario is just across the Detroit River from our metropolitan sprawl and also holds the largest population of all Canadian provinces, by area it’s mostly northern wildlands. And it’s right there, across the rivers and lakes from us!

Porter Fox (along with his talented photographer wife) also wrote about their dreamy honeymoon through Italy for the New York Times. I still haven’t really checked out Nowhere‘s website, but I expect good things.

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine

Somehow the smallest book gets the longest explanation.

This is the manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project, another Christmas gift from Cooper. I was wary about it, since he introduced it as something of a hopeless reaction to the knowledge that humankind has irrevocably altered the climate: that we have doomed most of the planet, and must move forward into the dangerous future without pretending we can fix it.

Without reading it, I already knew I preferred the messages of George Monbiot’s Feral, E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth. (In an oversimplified nutshell: we are not yet totally screwed, so we must protect, ideally, half the planet, reintroduce native species where they are missing, and let nature, surprisingly and impressively, rebuild the complex and much more resilient and adaptable ecosystems that can protect the planet we have so destructively exploited.) These books cultivate hope, and hope empowers action.

But I was interested in whatever weirdness it had to say, and so I packed the little thirty-page book, too, and pulled it out to read on the sunny car ride north.

The manifesto does not simply say that we are fucked, that we should run to the hills and build an isolated, self-sufficient life for when human cities flood and collapse, when mass agriculture and production burn. In fact, this manifesto doesn’t tell you anything particular to do for the planet or the environment at all. Instead, it asks us to confront our fears and communicate honestly.

It reminds us that the stories we tell ourselves as a society are central to how we live and build our world. It says that the old myths we grasp so tightly—the myth of an ever-ascending ladder of progress and the myth of civilization, which claims that humankind is separate from and master of other life on earth—are detrimental to our future. And so, the manifesto calls for new stories, what they call “Uncivilised” writing and art, which is “rooted in place, time and nature.”

They say, “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” The Dark Mountain project says we need to have space to grieve all we may lose, be they species or ecosystems, cities or our entire way of life. Starting from a place of honesty and acceptance, we can start to see a different path.

I haven’t read the many volumes of “Uncivilised” writing the Dark Mountain Project has published, nor have I had a chance to read their blog, so I don’t know the broader work. I’ve read the manifesto a few times, now, and I will say that it is thought-provoking, and eloquent, and I don’t entirely disagree. I realize now that many of the books I’ve sought over the past few years are similar to what they call for: writing rooted in place, authors honing in on the fabric of their surroundings (see above: Savage Dreams). So I’m super interested in what it is that they’ve published.

The manifesto is posted on their website, so if you’re interested, there’s nothing stopping you! Plus the New York Times Magazine interviewed one of the founders, which is pretty interesting.

Inspiration

These are my favorite parts of an essay I loved by Jhumpa Lahiri called “Trading Stories,” in The New Yorker:

I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?

It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.”

This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life.

[…]

I set out to do as he had done, and to pursue a career that would provide me with a similar stability and security. But at the last minute I stepped away, because I wanted to be a writer instead. Stepping away was what was essential, and what was also fraught. Even after I received the Pulitzer Prize, my father reminded me that writing stories was not something to count on, and that I must always be prepared to earn my living in some other way. I listen to him, and at the same time I have learned not to listen, to wander to the edge of the precipice and to leap. And so, though a writer’s job is to look and listen, in order to become a writer I had to be deaf and blind.

I, too, falter. I, too, dream of stepping away. I’d also like to be seen, if I could figure out what it was I wanted to show.

I’ve had a lot of thoughts flying around since the world I had prepared myself for disappeared in the early morning of November 9th. But I didn’t have it in me to continue with NaBloPoMo, a blog post for every day of November, so I didn’t.

Instead, I’ve read and learned a lot, written and collected many thoughts—on top of the stash I’d already accumulated in the busy weeks before the presidential election. I have a mountain of sentences about my personal story of the past decade, about how I want to live my life, about making a positive difference in this world.

A mountain, a sea, a vast terrain to dig through.

I’ll find my way to sharing soon, but until then, I wanted to say hello. It’s still hard to say, “Listen to me,” but I’m still here.

Why I Support Public Transit

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A tram in Prague.

I grew up in the suburbs, where you had to drive to get anywhere interesting. (Although today my dad bikes all the way from Grosse Pointe to Johnny Noodle King in Detroit, there’s no way my mom would have let me do that…and yeah right that teenage me would have even wanted to bike so far.) I used mass transit on rare vacations in what I would have called real cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, even navigating the Paris metro with my classmates on that first, heady trip to Europe. I used the bus sometimes in college to go to the mall. And then I moved to Germany for a year.

It was a completely different world, where a student could pay I think like 65€ for six months of unlimited public transit in the city. I lived two minutes from a Straßenbahn stop, and so I could take the tram straight downtown, or to my friends’ dorm on the other side of the city, or to the train station, where high-speed trains took me to Munich and Slovenia, Prague and Paris and Berlin. I could take a bus from the train station to the regional airport—something you couldn’t do in Ann Arbor back then, unless it was a major university break and you were a card-carrying student. It was completely different to live alone for the first time in Freiburg, instead of somewhere in Michigan, especially carless.

I learned to love transit in an extremely privileged way, when I was living off financial aid in Europe. When I came home, there was a car I could take from my parents. I mourned the loss of rail travel because it was so fun, because it worked so well, and because I saw no logical reason not to have it. When I killed the car, there was no money, and I didn’t consider buying a new one. Cooper ended up needing his own car, and so we didn’t have to depend exclusively on the erratic Amtrak schedule to keep our romance alive while he lived in Detroit. Luckily, I’m able to walk and bike. I’m happy with the decision to pay more to live centrally, or to live in a small space to live centrally, and eventually I learned to love that I don’t own a car.

Let’s be real, though. I have a car. I share it with Cooper. We don’t use it every day, or even every other day, but we have it whenever we need it. We take the bus and bike because it’s less stressful for us, much cheaper, better for the planet. We take the bus because for us, in central Ann Arbor, it’s easy.

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I don’t have any intentional bus photos.
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Chicago’s Union Station.
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Chicago to St. Louis on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle.

I wanted to write a love story to train travel. I want to make you love trains as much as I, a surprisingly dorky twenty-eight-year-old woman who never went through a public transit obsession as a small child, but who as an adult reads train travelogues and histories sometimes in her spare time. I really do get excited when I see streetcars in New Orleans, when I get to ride a subway. But I don’t have time to write that, because it’s not all sorted out in my head. Transcontinental trains have long stories, long reaches. And though the U.S. definitely also needs more long-distance trains and tracks, better trains, faster trains, southeast Michigan in particular needs a regional transit system.

I believe in that, too. Not just the sexy ICEs and TGVs of Germany and France, the intriguing yet unlikely train route from Ann Arbor to Traverse City that’s being researched. Not just the light rail I wish was already planned for the full length of Woodward Avenue, instead of just a little blip, or the light rail they might one day build to cross Ann Arbor. Not even just the commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, that people were talking about when I started college ten years ago—although that is a fucking big deal and a huge start, and the commuter rail is part of the historic and necessary transit package we are voting to fund in southeast Michigan tomorrow.

Because this isn’t about me, even though the commuter rail line is what might impact my life the most at first, and is what I most hoped for, these many years. This transit millage, to fund the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, is about connecting people, uniting our region, making it so people who can’t drive or can’t afford to drive or don’t want to drive or just don’t have a car that day because it’s broken or whatever, can get on with their lives, like they live in a real place that respects them as human beings and wants them to be able to work and pay their bills and feed their families.

Connecting Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties—the only major metropolitan area in the country without regional transit—and expanding and improving their transit options: this is a social justice issue, this is an environmental issue, this is an economic issue.

And so I didn’t write that lovely story about big trains going to far-off places, because that’s not the battle we’re fighting today and tomorrow.

Also because I’ve been busy calling voters and dropping brochures these past few days, and I haven’t had time to write seriously. If I hadn’t decided to do this NaBloPoMo thing again (a commitment to post something every day in November), I’d be asleep right now. But I wish I’d written this post, which maybe ten people will read, a few days ago at least. I wish I’d volunteered sooner and more. I desperately hope it works out tomorrow, for transit and for Michigan, and for America and the world.

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A retired Detroit streetcar at work in San Francisco.

Priorities, Pt. 2: More / Less

IMG_0082.JPGI have a really hard time waking up and getting up these days, these months. I inherited a hearty proclivity for sleep, and I will reliably fall back asleep again and again if I’m still horizontal, still under the covers.

I love to sleep, but I know my mornings are better if I can get out of bed promptly and start the day with something that matters to my life, instead of just a frantic breakfast/brush teeth/what will I wear/oh god I missed the bus routine. Computer screens, after not that long, clench my jaw and put my brain to sleep, and so I repeatedly feel throughout the day that I need a reset, a quick nap, so that I could feel smart again.

I was up until after one on Friday night, trying to get Friday’s post on Elena Ferrante finished. So naturally, I slept late on Saturday morning. When I got up, I found there was more work to do, and so I camped out on the couch with my laptop and tweaked some things, scrolled through Facebook off and on and clicked away until eleven-thirty or so, when I opened the door that goes from the bedroom to the porch.

I stepped over the threshold, into warmth and sunshine I hadn’t anticipated. The entire day was suddenly different. The pile of leaves littering the mat had become thrilling, not the mess it had seemed on wetter days, when I postponed cleaning out the porch garden. The metal buckets, waiting there for rain to wash them out, were a welcome reminder that I had finally composted the sunflower stalks and cleared out the soil and roots the day before. But mainly, it was wonderful to remember that there’s a much better world outside the computer screen. That all it takes is stepping away, and better yet, outside. I spent the next hour and a half on the porch: I swept away the dirt, I brought out my bowl of cereal and sat on the stool for a while, before walking down to the river on a fun phone call.

I need to get back in the habit of stepping out for a breath of fresh air when I wake up, instead of curling up and hiding. I don’t want the computer-haze-exhaustion I feel right now, wishing I had already written the more ambitious, photo-heavy blog posts I want to share with you, but knowing I’m too tired. So that’s why I wrote this short post about a random photo of my feet in blue wool socks, standing on a dirty porch. Because I love this random photo, and now I can shut the computer and rest, and in the morning, try to capture that again. More of that, less of this.

Priorities

turkey“I came out here just for the color of the sky,” Cooper’s dad said to me one evening in July. I think it’s a beautiful sentence, a worthy motivation. Although truthfully, he’s outside every night, since he tries to watch every Lake Michigan sunset, now that he’s settled there on the coast.

The sunset in my photos was in southwest Turkey, an unanticipated splendor during our visit to Pamukkale. There were endless ridges of mountains in the distance, and so many colors in the sky.

This reminds me of a funny piece I read on The Toast: “Things Lucy Maud Montgomery Lied to Me About,” about what the author of Anne of Green Gables has taught her adoring readers:

“That life would involve many, many, many more sunset vistas and clouds soaring over hills and many fewer hours spent sitting in rush-hour traffic and many fewer days spent living in apartment buildings with views of dumpsters.”

Some of the other alleged lies—that gawky girls would grow up to be women who would be described as ‘lissome’ and ‘shining’ and own multitudes of dresses of delicious fabrics like organza and chiffon, that cooking would be all doughnuts and cakes and homemade wine—aren’t mostly things you could fight for. Does anyone use the word ‘lissome’ these days?

But I think this one, filling your life with sunset vistas, is not so hard, if that’s what you really want. You don’t have to move to Lake Michigan like Cooper’s dad. If you have the proper hours free, you just need to find a piece of western sky as often as you please. Sunsets aren’t spectacular every night (at least not in southeast Michigan), but if you’re paying attention there are a lot of good ones.

It’s Hard to Be Human: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet

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The books are My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. They’re written by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, and everyone should read them. (I don’t have book one to photograph because I loaned it to my parents, who are not heeding my advice.)

I always feel sad when an engaging book shuts its world to me. No matter whether the ending is happy, sad, or bittersweet, when a book whose characters I deeply love ends, it feels at first like a gaping loss from my life.

I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in January, and I still feel the loss. But I haven’t known how to reply to the series. When I reached the end of the fourth book, The Story of the Lost Child, I felt so sad and empty. The inhabitants of its pages had transformed into ghosts.

I almost wanted to pick up My Brilliant Friend, the first book, and start over again—maybe then I could figure out what I was searching for. I could take notes, snap a photo of every passage that made me smile or caused a pang in my heart. Reread and really savor the words of the narrator, Elena Greco, known as Lenù to her friends and family. I think the language of the novels must be good, but I could barely remember it when I surfaced from the passionate story, besides the constant labeling of whether someone is speaking in pure Italian or in the dialect of the main characters’ scary and gray Naples neighborhood.

The image I constructed of the neighborhood is hard to shake: the roads and the buildings are dark and crumbling, and so are many of the people who live there. The sun must shine and the clouds must part sometimes to reveal a smiling blue sky (it’s southern Italy, after all!), but I don’t imagine it like that. Lenù meets Lila—Raffaela or Lina Cerullo to everyone else—when they are little girls, growing up in the same apartment building in post-World War II Naples. Post-war, post-apocalypse, it could be either. These two intelligent friends unite over their love of learning; Lenù hopes that attaching herself to the amazing Lila will propel her along with Lila out of this world they were born into, which is peopled by villains, punctuated with murders, hostile to female independence. It starts out something like a fairy tale, but by the end of the first book the villains are no longer so clear, and the path out seems closed to Lila.

The series’ ending is revealed at its beginning, in the first pages of the first book, so I’m not giving anything away when I say that the person who matters most to Lenù, her brilliant friend Lila, disappears. Lenù sits down to write out their story, every last detail, in hopes of bringing her back.

The plot of the story is compelling, of course. You want to know how these little girls end up as older women, in different cities, one faced with the other’s disappearance. I found myself strongly committed to Lenú’s ascendence from the neighborhood to institutions of higher learning, from southern to northern Italy, and to an apartment overlooking the sea where she can pursue her high-profile writing career, and I was deeply dismayed by what lay in store for her friend on the other side of the looking glass. Lila is at least equally as talented—Lenú is always worried and always hoping that her friend will leap back onto the writing path and show her up—but, dealt a different hand, Lila willfully refuses to fight for anything she’d originally wanted. Instead, she changes her goals, perspective, and her public persona whenever she needs to.

Beyond the two protagonists, I found it fascinating to see how the web of characters in the neighborhood persists, how it continues to tangle ever tighter. The story takes place over many decades, through corrupt and violent times, social and political unrest. You see Italy through many lenses: those of the downtrodden workers, the professors, the students in revolt, the fascists who still hold power on the streets, the ancient families of letters and their activist, even terrorist, children.

More than the twists and turns of the plot, which some readers complain resembles a soap opera, I am in awe of how Ferrante portrays her characters, and the unflinching insight she provides into how they process the world and react to others. Lenù can be a brutal narrator. She makes harsh judgments about her friends and family, but also shares her own weakest moments. I don’t trust that she’s always being honest with the reader or herself, even when she thinks she’s telling the truth, and I don’t always like Lenù. But I do understand the strategies she employs to try to stay on track, stay afloat. She really does want to help her friends, although many of life’s problems are beyond any individual’s control. The books are a testament to the power of women, and to the depth of friendship, and I love that.

I also love these books because they scare me. Ferrante writes about the things that matter: friendship and creativity and fulfillment, poverty and misogyny and the deep injustices so many people face. Reading the books, especially the last two, riled me up. These are two strong, intelligent women working extremely hard to achieve their personal goals, but so many factors stand in opposition. They have no idea how to build healthy, open relationships; they don’t have a model of a loving, nurturing family or marriage. Lila and Lenù love each other more than they love anyone else, but they’re not very good at that, even.

Ferrante is willing to expose the protagonists’ most harmful faults, the dark side of motherhood, places of despair. We understand how useless a father can be, and yet see how the men are repeatedly viewed more positively than their female counterparts. The series is a great depiction of how hard it is to be a human. We are always changing, always navigating new challenges, and don’t really reach a miracle moment where we’ve achieved all we wish for. The way we make decisions can be impassioned, illogical, spiteful; sometimes we don’t make any decisions at all and then wish we had. We do things in fits and starts, desperate for a clean break and yet stuttering along.

No one taught these women how to have balanced relationships that satisfy them. The fact that they dare to want more than a husband who can provide a comfortable home and healthy children is outrageous at the time they are growing up, and so bravo to them, every time that they fight for something more, for a romantic spark or intellectual outlet. Their generation of women is trying to figure it out, to forge new ways of womanhood and personhood. But I look at these lives, fictional in name if not in content, and I get angry.

I know it’s impossible, but I want someone to have told them that marriage isn’t something to be resigned to. That your partner needs to respect your work and you need to respect his so you can buoy each other up, instead of shut each other out and try to do what you need to on your own in stolen moments.  

Reading Ferrante’s engrossing, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking novels reminds me to be grateful for the life I lead. I’m privileged to live a life mostly of my own design, surrounded by supportive friends, family, and partner. But still, I know that many people in this country don’t feel safe and are not leading the lives that they would choose. I know that depression and isolation and injustice are visited upon people out of the blue, or all the time, with no regard for their promise, their innocence, the simple fact that they are also human. Reading these books makes me want to yell and cry and change the world.

P.S. There are lots of great reviews out there, which talk about relationships and motherhood and everything else about the books better than I do, but Judith Thurman’s snippet from The New Yorker‘s “The Books We Loved in 2015” is my favorite. Nothing shows book love better than addiction:

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