Book Review: The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante

The four-volume, 1,693 pages of Elena Ferrante’s masterpiece chronicles the childhood through to late adulthood of two women born in a poor quarter of Naples, Italy.

The novels progress from My Brilliant Friend (Childhood, Adolescence); The Story of a New Name (Youth); Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Middle age); to The Story of a Lost Child (Maturity, Old Age).

The central characters are the narrator, Elena Greco (Lenu), and her childhood friend, Rafaela Cerullo (Lila). The story arc tracks the changes in their relationship against neighborhood poverty and violence, extended family ties, peer groups, and Italian social and political developments from the 1950s to the 2000s. It thoroughly examines the contrasting choices each makes: conformity and bookish study over fiery independence and rebellion, uncertainty versus confidence, and exploring the world beyond the neighborhood against immersion in it.

These contrasts are woven into a tapestry that incorporates over 50 major and minor characters, in addition to the two main protagonists.The Index of Characters provided at the start of each volume becomes a well-thumbed reference. A map of Naples might also help, but it isn’t necessary. Likewise, a knowledge of Italian politics and revolutionary movements in the 1960s and after. And an appreciation of shoe manufacturing, developments in data processing, and academic publishing.

External events are, however, very much secondary to the brilliant psychological insights and descriptions of female friendship, sexuality, motherhood, and the changing role of women in social and intimate relationships.

Above all, these novels shimmer and spark with prose that, in translation, leaps off the page and carries the reader from one breathless appreciation of Ferrante’s skill as a writer to another.

She was like the full moon when it crouches behind the forest and the branches scribble on its face.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.

The Story of a New Name

The opening of the first volume foreshadows the ending of the last: Lila has disappeared. So Lenu “turned on the computer and began to write–all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.” 1,690 pages later, the sequence of events that led to her friend’s disappearance has been fully described. But not necessarily explained. As convoluted as life, as unclear and contradictory, the plot twists and turns. The unexpected coexists with the pedestrian. The quotidian developments that shape character, the world through a child’s eyes:

Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.

My Brilliant Friend

In the end, the question remained in this reader’s mind: who *is* Elena Ferrante (a pen name), and to what extent is she Lenu? These books hint that as much remains hidden as revealed, leaving the reader wanting more, and then more, and then more:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.

The Story of a Lost Child

More than anything, I resonated with the theme of escape: from the confines of family and neighborhood, home and hearth. Embracing education as a pathway to freedom, then coming face to face with the realization we can never truly escape:

Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

What are you waiting for? Drop everything and launch yourself on the journey with My Brilliant Friend.

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