I recently scarfed down Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which, with the October release of the final installment in the four book series, had reviewers singing their praises yet again for Ferrante’s work.
Read by me in a week, this series was undoubtedly engaging. Most immediately remarkable is Ferrante’s ability to craft such an extensive world – the small, poor neighborhood of Naples in which her main character grows up – and create such distinguishable characters within it. It is only momentarily difficult to juggle the various inhabitants of this text; rather quickly, I was deftly distinguishing Enzo, Pascale, Antonio, etc. And with each name, an emotion leaped up, signifying the depth of Ferrante’s world-creating skills.
Most of the conversation around this series has emphasized the relationship between the narrator, Elena, and her friend Lila. Narratively, the story begins and ends with the two, and tracks the changes in their relationship over the course of decades. The character of Elena, who grows from a young child to an aging woman, pivots around Lila. Lila is almost like a black hole in Elena’s life, a vacuous source that sucks in Elena’s selfhood. Continuously, Elena credits Lila – who doesn’t go beyond elementary school despite her remarkable intelligence – as the source of her own academic and professional successes. Without the inspiration of Lila, Elena would never have attended university, or have become a writer. At the same time that Elena grows because of Lila, Lila holds Elena back with self-doubt and criticism. She serves as a foil to Elena who completes and destroys her.
While this intense “frenemy”-esque relationship is riveting, it for me was a largely secondary point that was appealing mostly in that it was a backdrop for Elena’s development. What kept me reading the series was the detailed writing of Ferrante coupled with the perspective Elena’s older self shed on her younger one. This combination creates a very real sense of growing up at various crucial stages. We see Elena discover her sexuality, love, work, and family in very real terms. Through these aspects, Elena turns into a person, a self, but with a sense of struggle that Ferrante deftly describes.
I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something—here was the point—only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.
While Lila is central in this realization, the most fascinating aspect of it is what is occurring between Elena as she exists day-to-day and Elena as she self-reflects. Lila is a modifier, who allows the reader and Elena to see herself.
Although Lila and Elena’s relationship is the crux, it serves as a mode for viewing so much more, like the many other connections Elena has to this neighborhood. By book three, Elena seems to start to develop other genuine adult friendships, at least so far as she can tell. At first seeming like the ideal, Lila and Elena’s connection is a tortured passion that became for me one end of a spectrum for recognizing a normal, average friendship – that between Elena and Carmela.
However, though perhaps seen more everyday, there’s something acutely banal about this connection that is simultaneously appealing in comparison to and inferior to Elena and Lila’s connection. Again, the sense that their friendship is never fixed; it’s constantly opposing itself. In this way, it’s utterly sublime, at once terrifying and beautiful.
This positioning and emphasis on a female friendship, which endures beyond any romantic love, is incredibly refreshing and needed. In an age of #squadgoals and amidst a dearth of female friendships in literature, Ferrante’s novels depict an authentic look at a deep connection between women. While painful, it gives more than it takes. And it provides a beautiful platform for an authentic female bildungsroman.