Book Review – The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante

It’s January and with this chilly month comes the typical list of resolutions, including the one to read more. I don’t necessarily want to read more, but I do want to keep better track of what I’m reading. I have a tendency to not bother writing about books that I don’t care much for, but in truth, I can learn as much about life (and writing) from books I dislike as those that I enjoy. I’m also getting a jump on the book a week goal by counting books 3 and 4 of he Neapolitan Quartet as my first two books of 2017.

Recently I was headed to the library to return book 3 (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), and pick up book 4 (The Story of the Lost Child), when a neighbour stopped me to ask if I was enjoying the series. They’re intense, I replied. She was concerned about finding time to sit down and read any quantity of the book with two small children around, and at first I suggested that she find herself some “me time”. But in fact, I almost have begun to think that these books are best read only a few pages at a time.

Ferrante’s plain, unadorned language is so chock full of detail that it requires time to be processed. The full story laid out in the four books is over 1200 pages and is full of twists and cliffhangers.

The series begins when Elena and her friend Lina/Lila are small and progresses through their lives to old age. The girls live in a poor neighbourhood in Naples and the story follows them both as one grows and moves, becomes educated, and famous, while the other remains behind, marrying young, working in a factory, enduring life’s hardships. Elena and Lila are often estranged, and when they are together they vacillate between comfort and being uneasy adversaries.

Most obviously, the books are about Naples, and the post-war politics of the second world war. The dynamic of the neighbourhood is set by what various people had done in the war during Mussolini’s fascist state, and that power structure continues through the books as the characters grow up and choose sides in Italy’s often confusing political climate; fascist, communist, socialist, etc.

The books are also about class. Elena works and struggles to become educated and to get out of the ghetto that she was born into, but often finds herself not fitting in anywhere, because she is still marked by her past.

Elena is constantly criticizing herself, second guessing every decision she makes, and comparing herself to Lina, for whom learning and creativity seem to come so easily. This insecurity follows her throughout her life, even once she becomes successful as a writer. She is constrained by the role of the woman (wife, mother, lover) in post-war Italy, and is almost constantly afraid to ask for/demand what she wants.

Ferrante also does a magnificent job of exploring the relationships between women. In Elena’s childhood Neapolitan neighbourhood, her friends are constantly bickering and backstabbing each other; her mother is horrifically abusive yet Elena still longs for her approval. Ferrante provides a list of all the families/characters at the beginning of each book and readers will find themselves referring to it regularly just to keep track of who has stolen whose husband, or who has married what cousin.

The dynamic between Elena and Lila is the central thread of the story and every reader will relate. We all had a Lina in our lives, the smart, pretty bully who stole our boyfriend, who made us feel stupid, but who we were drawn to like a moth to a flame. Lina and Elena feed off of each other’s (often negative) energy, intertwining their lives, but a fair amount of the drama comes from the various ways in which Lina manipulates Elena to do her dirty work.

All of these themes are layered on top of each other, laced together with additional points about feminism, polygamy, sexuality, intellectualism, terrorism, violence, the influence of the Camorra (a centuries old Naples-based mafia-type group), worker’s rights, spousal and child abuse, single parenthood, betrayal and grief.

That Ferrante has managed to capture so many different motifs is quite a feat, but she weaves the story like a fine web that the reader is drawn into and cannot extricate themselves from.

The Neapolitan novels are completely engrossing and enthralling and were it not for my goal to read a book a week in 2017, I’d actually be inclined to read them all over again right away, savouring each page and plot twist and bit of dialogue.

Best read with Google nearby, unless you’re an expert on mid-20th century Italian politics, because the plot gets twisty in parts.