There have been three times in my life that I’ve gotten hooked into a series of books.
The first time was when I started reading the Harry Potter series, which I’m proud to say is a love affair that has lasted up to this day. The second time I lingered outside my local Easons as a teenager just after Christmas to pick up the next copies of Twilight, which I blasted through.
The third time happened again this Christmas past, when I was inspired to pick up the first of the Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend. I’m not a big series reader, but I really felt that each time I finished one of these books, I couldn’t have got my hands on the next one quick enough.
These books came to me around a funny time. I read all of these books over the December period at the end of which by beloved Daideo died, during which Elena Ferrante gave me great perspective and a welcome distraction. Christmas is also the time I remember the accumulative six months I lived in Italy, where I discovered both renewed independence and glorious Italian seaside and sunshine.
While reading the Neopolitan Novels I experienced constant throwbacks to the people I met, the food I ate and the sights I saw travelling around the country, where no matter how mentally or physically exhausted I was, I could find solace by sitting on top of my backpack or lying on a beach with my Kindle to shield my eyes from the sun.
I met some fantastic people but special to me as they are, I doubt any would be a match for the relationship I was about to delve into.
The first in the series, My Brilliant Friend sets the foundation for the strong and unbreakable bond of Lila and Elena, and my own fulfilling relationship with this series. Bare yet moving and descriptive prose leaves room for the story to flourish against social-realistic backdrop of old Naples, where the young girls embark on this epic depiction of female friendship.
Competitive yet barely able to draw away from each other, our story begins in 1950’s Naples, where the girls learn to lean on each other over anyone else in a neighbourhood where they struggle with taboo, the failures of their parents and the expectations of their parents amid true poverty and the influence of the mafia.
You can have your Romeo and Juliets, Cathy and Heathcliffs – the real and dramatic love story here is that of Elena and Lila. The Neapolitan Novels will leave you wondering why authors waste time on romantic love when their friendship is twice as captivating, intriguing and at times confusing but always intriguing.
The second novel, The Story of a New Name gives insight on the first as both the reader and Elena read Lila’s diary, entrusted to her friend for safekeeping. As the young women enter late adolescence and early adulthood (and are yet still fragile and vulnerable in the eyes of the reader), the mysterious author Elena Ferrante deals with the violence and threat of rape faced by the women of Naples in what is a very female novel.
While the idea of beauty as a curse is sometimes difficult to connect with, Ferrante shows us the opportunities and the difference in life path offered to Lila and Elena because of their physical differences.
Ferrante embarks on a narrative of feminism and politics that characterise the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. It’s against different scenery that we meet Lila and Elena, both of whom live very different existences, yet both still have personalities that are changing but deeply familiar to the reader.
Familial difficulties and a new independence have forced Lila to join the workforce, while Elena lives a seemingly charmed life amid creative and academic success, having escaped the Naples of her childhood.
My Brilliant Friend laid the foundations and the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child ties up all the loose ends and responds to all your answered questions. We are back at our beginnings in Naples, a magnetic but troubled city still marked by the criminal violence, intricate familial ties and excessive nationalism we saw in the first novel.
Warring families and troubled relationships aside, the strongest study is is of Lila and Elena’s union, while is told with unparalleled honesty and stunning intimacy.
To spend time reading is the chance to live a thousand lives in a thousand worlds – in the Neapolitan Novels, we see two characters through the course of a friendship and a long period of life during a time of huge change in their country.
These are not standalone novels, it’s impossible to read My Brilliant Friend without being completely immersed in this story, after which you will struggle to find a deeper portrayal of friendship and all that comes with it.
By far one of the greatest attributes of the Neapolitan Novels is how true to life they are, the depiction of old-world Naples where the struggle between fascists and communists is a day-to-day reality, women live in fear of the men they know and neighbourhood hierarchies dictate life.
We might not have any knowledge of Elena Ferrante herself, but there is no doubt she is a child of Naples – although whether she is the Elena Greco of the novel is another question.
The ending to this story might not be all you expected or hoped for, but there is also hope for the future both of Italy and on a personal level as Naples and the women continue to reinvent themselves.