The Short Version: On the outskirts of Naples in the late 1950s, a young girl named Elena becomes best friends with a young girl named Lila. Their adolescence forms the story of this first entry in the saga everyone has been buzzing about, a tale of romance and education and class distinction halfway around the world.
The Review: Ferrante Fever. It’s a real thing. I wasn’t sure I was going to buy in, even as I read the first half or so of this novel – but by the end, it had me. I was tempted to immediately rush out and buy books 2 and 3 while tapping my foot eagerly for book 4.
But I’m not sure bingeing on these books would do them justice. There is something lovely and rich about spending time with them, allowing them to be a luxury – or at least, that’s how I felt about this first one. Well, that said, there is a creeping urgency around the very edges, due to how the book begins: in the present (or at least near present), Elena gets a call from Lila’s son and the news that she has completely disappeared. This spurs Elena to start writing down her memories of their friendship – and the rest of the novel is the start of those memories. The framing device, if that’s what we want to call it, is left open and a reader could be forgiven for shrugging it aside, as we don’t yet know what (if any) impact it will have on the rest of the telling. At this point, it simply provides an opening for Elena to begin her memoirs.
The most incredible thing about Ferrante’s writing is that it operates on two levels; that is, she is writing the story of a character who is writing a story. Elena & Lila’s lives are not happening in the present tense but rather the telling is the present-tense action of the novel. And Ferrante manages this beautifully, to the point that you can feel Elena shaking off the cobwebs of memory as she writes. She’ll describe a moment and then loop back to fill in the context, not out of narrative trickery but in the way that you or I might do while telling a story to friends, a sort of “oh, but you don’t know that person so real quick, I met them…” but with far more craft and skill than ordinary conversationalists. It feels like a natural expression of the woman we come to know over the course of this novel, as though it is truly her memoir – but she, Elena Greco, is not(?) Elena Ferrante.
There’s something marvelous, too, about her depiction of small-town Italy. Through both Ferrante’s writing and, I think, Ann Goldstein’s translation, we get a very quick and very easy understanding of the culture and the people of this neighborhood. It feels like a cultural cliché to say that, well, Italian people are passionate and boisterous – but that’s exactly the picture that Ferrante paints and by embracing the stereotype, she shows the honest truth of it. What the stereotype doesn’t prepare you for, and what Ferrante does an even better job of showing, is the realities of life in a neighborhood where personalities are that big and that volatile. The violence in this novel just blew me away: how quickly it comes, how pervasive it is, and how Elena (the narrator) just sees that as a part of life. It was one of the things utterly foreign to me about this world and also one of the most attractive and interesting things about it.
But regardless of the cultural and temporal differences, it’s hard to not feel the universality of the story being related here. We’ve all known the wonderful trials of best-friendship, the rush of staying out late and the confusion of starting to discover your body. This book doesn’t tell you anything new about that time in your life, but it does make you look back on it with (at the least) fond interest and a comparative eye between you/your adolescence and Elena’s. Then, as the story begins to develop more specificity as Lila is courted by a succession of men and eventually wooed by one, culminating in the final pages of the book with her wedding, things do start to get a little unique – just in time for Ferrante to wrap up and leave you hanging on for the next installment. Much like her prose goes from a little hazy to crystal clear as her memories get sharper, so too does the plot.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Ultimately, this novel is nothing more (or less) than a coming of age tale, tracking a female friendship. This isn’t meant to disparage – at the very least, even if it’s not your cup of tea, you’d see quickly that this is the epitome of that genre – but simply to adjust expectations. The Neapolitan novels have gotten so much hype over the last year or so that it’s hard to see them as individual novels, sometimes. I spent much of the ToB this past spring hearing about the third novel in the series – so much so that I still have no idea about what happens in the second one. I’m excited to go in blind, knowing only our two lady leads – but it is a gentle excitement, the kind that can wait to be fulfilled. We’ll see if that builds once I get around to book two.