Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels start with a mystery – that of the missing friend, Lila. From there, the reader is taken on an intimate journey through the lives of Lila and Lenu, two friends growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples.
Both Lila and Lenu are intriguing characters that are drawn sharply by Ferrante. Lila is extraordinarily clever, charming, mean and loyal, and it is no wonder that Lenu, who is cautious, self-conscious and ambitious, is captivated by her.
My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series, follows the early childhood and school years of Lila and Lenu. At this time, both girls’ intelligence and joy in learning brings them together.
However, even as children, there is a constant rivalry between the two, at least from the perspective of Lenu, who never feels she can equal Lila, either in beauty or intellect. Their friendship at this time is one of affection, but also of tension. They need and depend on each other in a violent and unpredictable community, yet Lenu also feels tormented by her need to appease, or defeat Lila in some undefined competition.
The separation of the girls’ paths when Lenu attends Lila’s wedding is the just one of the first experiences of the rise and fall in fortunes the two experience throughout their lives.
In the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name, Lila is a disillusioned newlywed. After the loss of a pregnancy, Lenu and Lila’s mother take her on a holiday to rest. During the break in Ischia, Lila and Lenu share a time of sunshine and leisure, in which love comes between the two, once again sending them on different trajectories.
The third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, follows Lenu as she makes the longed-for departure from the neighbourhood of her birth and childhood to pursue her education, while Lila falls into difficulty, slaving away in a factory where she, like all other female workers, is mistreated. The experience ignites in Lila a drive to join the forces of change in Italy that are calling for greater equality and fairer conditions for both women and workers.
Menwhile, Lenu experiences the joys and difficulties of married life, never quite content in her position of wealth, comfort, professional success, and motherhood. Eventually, she makes a decision that leads her back to the neighbourhood of her childhood.
In The Story of the Lost Child, the two friends come together, living in their old neighbourhood where their family lives intertwine. The tragedy of the title of this book shapes Lila forever. It is an episode that is shocking, yet seems strangely inevitable.
While the Ferrante’s Neapolitan series explores big issues of politics, gender and class, at their heart, they are about friendship and loyalty, family and roots. They are stories of an individual life’s ups and downs, and how the relationship between that life and the ones that surround it. The length of the series, set over a lifetime, all of the characters become vivid, from the violent and powerful Solaras brothers to the charming and flawed Nino. Like in life, all characters are broken in ways, some more completely than others. Lila, in particular, is a fascinating character – at times her behaviour is repellent, and at other times, it is admirable. She is strong, uncompromising, cruel and kind, a fearsome opponent and a priceless ally.
However, they are also stories of place – of the days on the sand in the beach of Ischia, and of the claustrophobic neighbourhood which continues to tug at those who were born there, even when they are determined to leave, the relief of a time studying in Pisa or escaping to Florence, but the inevitability of returning ‘home’. Throughout the series, I became familiar with the apartments where Lenu could hear every movement of Lila, the noisy market and the upper class shopping district where shoes Lila had designed were sold.
It is a series that is hard to forget, such is its rawness and honesty, revealing the humanity and vulnerability of its complex characters, the pull of their past and the significance of place. I loved all four books, and have missed the extraordinary characters and vivid setting, since finishing reading the final book. The experience of reading books like these is rare and unforgettable.