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

ferrante books in a row
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:

ferrante

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