W

hy have Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child—become such a phenomenon with American and British readers? The overall plot, in which a melodramatic and humorless woman struggles to transcend her humble origins, is both overdone and ordinary. The prose, in Ann Goldstein’s translation, is artless, repetitive, and stale. There are too many characters to keep track of, and much of the quartet’s cultural nuance (the ideological differences, for instance, between those who read La Stampa, Il Tempo, or Corriere della Sera) whizzes right over non-Italian heads. And Ferrante’s Naples, awash in crime and garbage, doesn’t conjure up the glorious fantasy Italy of A Room with a View or Enchanted April.

Yet the Ferrante novels are a publishing sensation, praised for their rawness, their bravery, their honesty, their “depth of perception” (the Wall Street Journal), their “intense, forensic exploration” of friendship (the Times Literary Supplement), and the way they elaborate “the mysterious beauty and brutality of personal experience” (the New York Times Book Review). There’s even an air of mystery about them, since “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym and no one has yet to determine the author’s actual identity. This helps explain why there’s an Instagram feed where readers post Ferrante miscellany.

But even the allure of the pseudonymous mystery woman fails to account for the sorts of things that appear under the Twitter hashtag #ferrantefever. “STOP WRITING STRAIGHT INTO MY HEART, ELENA FERRANTE,” reads a typical tweet.
The books describe the fraught, lifelong friendship of Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena Greco, two girls born in 1944 in an impoverished section of Naples known only as “the neighborhood.” Life is brutal. “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died,” Elena explains. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence…but I don’t recall ever having thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.” Lila’s father is a shoemaker, while Elena’s is a porter; their neighbors are shopkeepers, loan sharks, grocers, gangsters, mechanics, madwomen, and murderers.

They’re all perpetually enmeshed in a confusing web of intermarriage, business dealings, and feud, and they regularly swap roles: At some point in Ferrante’s story, virtually everyone does time as everyone else’s rival or ally or enemy or co-conspirator or secret lover or baby daddy or in-law or friend. This gets confusing, and frequently the books feel like a long-running soap opera, but Ferrante gets her point across: Just reading about the neighborhood induces claustrophobia. For nearly 1,700 pages, she hems us in amid her characters.

My Brilliant Friend begins when Elena and Lila, both age six, bond while throwing rocks at boys. When Lila pushes Elena’s beloved doll down a grate, Elena promptly does the same to Lila’s doll. “What you do, I do,” Elena tells her, with quavery conviction, and just like that, their childhood takes shape. Lila, a “terrible, dazzling girl,” calls the shots, while Elena does her best to keep up.

Elena is plump and pretty, while Lila is “skinny, like a salted anchovy.” Elena studies hard, but Lila, who teaches herself to read from the scraps of newspaper her father’s customers use to wrap old shoes, is a natural. Elena is timid; Lila, utterly fearless. Even the roughest neighborhood boys are daunted by her. “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a bite,” Elena remembers. “Every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you.”

The girls’ lives diverge after sixth grade, when Lila’s father makes her quit school. (When she protests, he throws her out of the window, breaking her arm.) “I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important,” Elena says. Without Lila, studying “had stopped being a kind of adventure and had become only a thing I knew well and was much praised for.” Soon, even praise loses its luster: “In the end what did it prove? It proved how fruitful it had been to study with Lila and talk to her, to have her as a goad and a support as I ventured…among the things and persons and landscapes and ideas of books.”

But Lila’s no longer interested in reading, though her reputation for brilliance persists. When the town librarian mentions her regret that Lila has stopped checking out books, Elena bristles with jealousy. “It occurred to me that if Lila had taken out just a single book a year, on that book she would have left her imprint and the teacher would have felt it the moment she returned it, while I left no mark,” she thinks, sulkily. When 16-year-old Lila announces her engagement to a rich local grocer, Elena is undone: “I took it for granted that her fate would be better than mine….I felt I was a shadow, I wept in despair.”

All four novels are weirdly indifferent to detail. We’re never quite sure what people look like, and no one seems to eat; the action unfolds against a series of vague backdrops.

Over the next 1,500 pages, Elena triumphs in school, publishes several books, becomes internationally famous, marries a prominent intellectual, embarks on a tempestuous love affair, and raises three accomplished daughters. Nonetheless, she will experience her own life as drab and inferior. Accolades from the rest of the world are meaningless: Elena perpetually craves Lila’s admiration and stakes her whole personality on Lila’s esteem. Moreover, Elena spends her adulthood consumed by a paranoid conviction that Lila—Lila, who never goes to school, never escapes the neighborhood, who is raped and beaten by her husband and abandoned while pregnant by her illicit lover, who spends years working a horrible job in a mob-run salami factory, and who ultimately loses both of her children—is leading a superior life.

We’re told in the prologue that Elena herself is the author, writing these books after Lila, age sixty-something, has disappeared. For four volumes, we’re trapped in Elena’s head; as the narrative gushes forth, we experience her pathological insecurity firsthand. At first her anxieties are pardonable—who can condemn a teenager for selfishness? Yet Elena grows older without ever growing up; throughout the books, one word from Lila (or one word about Lila from anyone else) is enough to plunge her into self-loathing. Neutral statements and even compliments are always negatively spun.

Elena’s self-regard fluctuates wildly, and we’re privy to every dip and rise; meanwhile, a host of secondary characters buzzes annoyingly in the background, like flies that refuse to land. Even the most significant among them, a man named Nino from the neighborhood who ruins Lila’s marriage, breaks up Elena’s, and fathers one of Elena’s children, never quite comes to life. We see him only through Elena’s maniacal eyes, and even in the heat of their affair, he’s more placeholder than paramour. “With Lila set aside, I didn’t know how to give myself substance except by modeling myself on Nino,” Elena says in The Story of the Lost Child. Later, when her dependence burns itself out, Nino dwindles into insignificance.

All four novels are weirdly indifferent to detail. We’re never quite sure what people look like, and no one seems to eat; the action unfolds against a series of vague backdrops, and Ferrante wastes no ink on Lila-less stretches of the plot. Here’s Elena describing a trip to France on her first international book tour: “The two women took me around to big cities and small towns, every day a journey, every evening a debate in a bookstore or even a private apartment. As for meals and sleep, there was home cooking, a cot, or, occasionally, a couch.” That’s all we get. Elena spends decades studying, yet we rarely hear what she’s reading or writing; if she has intellectual epiphanies, she keeps them to herself. A three-page description of her reaction to Carla Lonzi’s feminist manifesto Let’s Spit on Hegel is one notable exception, but even here all thoughts lead back to Lila.

I read thinking of her, of fragments of her life, of the sentences she would agree with, of those she would have rejected…I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. The gist was that. Accept that I was an average person. What should I do. Try again to write. Maybe I didn’t have the passion, I merely limited myself to carrying out a task.

It’s tempting to say that the Neapolitan novels describe the “dark side” of female friendship, but Elena and Lila’s relationship seems to have no bright side at all. Or is this unremitting negativity all in Elena’s head? Near the end of My Brilliant Friend (whose title, the reader assumes, must refer to Lila), Lila urges Elena to continue in school. “I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying,” she offers. Elena demurs; at a certain point, she says, school is over. “Not for you, you’re my brilliant friend,” Lila insists, and just like that, the title’s significance flips.

“Lila herself…had often repeated: Elena Greco, the brilliant friend of Raffaella Cerullo,” Elena recalls, four books later, when she becomes convinced that Lila is secretly writing a novel to trump all of hers. “From that unexpected reversal of destinies I would emerge annihilated.”

In the end, only Lila is annihilated, and her disappearance confirms everything that Elena feared and suspected all along. Without her brilliant friend, Elena has no story to tell; when Lila vanishes, Elena’s creative fire is extinguished, and the narrative—finally—winks out. “What is the point of all these pages, then?” Elena belatedly asks. Those not afflicted with #ferrantefever are bound to wonder the same thing. The Neapolitan novels are not great literature; they’re potboilers dressed in exotic Italian vestments. They have won their audience for the same reason highbrow soap operas such as Downton Abbey appeal to those who like their domestic melodrama to come with a patina of European refinement. Ferrante’s saga is overwrought, forgettable, and ultimately without substance; the novels have no real conclusion, no resolution. They finish without teaching us anything and end only because their author ran out of ideas.

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