The Neapolitan Novels

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The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Book Review 

Referred to as The ‘Neapolitan Novels’. Simply fascinating! A  4-part series written by Elena Ferrante – a pseudonymous Italian novelist, and translated from Italian to English by Anne Goldstein. Each book is a modern fiction masterpiece about the friendship of two seemingly ordinary yet extraordinary girls from Naples.

Without delving deeper into the theme of the novels just yet, let me share with you what had initially sparked my curiosity and eventually led me to buy the books. It was a combination of factors but it mainly had to do with my long-standing love for Italy and that the Neapolitan Novels could potentially bring me closer to it.  It was my intrigue with a city that grew on me over the years then one day gripped me –  the city of Napoli – historic, violent, crazy and misunderstood Napoli.  It was the fact that these books were recommended to me by an old and dear friend, who is an avid reader with trustworthy literary views. It was he, and because of the way he knows me deeply from a ‘soul’ perspective that ignited my interest in reading the novels. Then it was my mother who read them and fell in love and confidently knew I would also fall in love. Then came other recommendations by one or two other friends who are acquainted with my affinity with Italy, and who I believe value friendships as much as I do.

I completed reading all four novels under two weeks. They were real page turners. Set between this century and the last, the novels tell a beautiful story of intelligent Elena from Napoli, and her complex and often frustrating friendship with her best friend Lila. Ferrante paints a realistic picture of the protagonist’s love/hate relationship with her city Napoli – what her moody city has at times deprived her of, what it has generously given to her, and what it has brutally taken away from her.

With careful subtlety, Ferrante creatively shows the reader what it means to live through the ‘full circle’ and all stages of life.  She portrays the realities and hypocrisy of friendships; the bitterness of poverty, but also the downside of dressed-up wealth.  As a reader, I was cleverly guided through the waves and irony of life – the disguised grandiosity of being considered ‘important’ in your own circles but a disappointing ‘nothing’ outside it; how we are all little dots living inside a big tinted and dusty bubble; and how everything is relative.  The author shows us the strong and paralyzing hold that traditions – rigid and by now passé – have on some of us, and how self-reliance and determination can take us out of our dire circumstances and our once helpless selves, and eventually bring us right back inside ourselves (improved and hopeful versions of ourselves) and into self-acceptance.

Ferrante’s descriptions of human emotions and circumstantial behaviours are so powerful I felt I was Elena, living within her, and living with her in her harsh Neapolitan quarters; being part of her successes and failures; traveling with her and experiencing the unmatched yet fleeting ecstasy of recognition and success; and feeling the jabs she feels in her heart as she falls in and out of love and as she sometimes falls into the abyss of disappointment once lovers stand naked in their humanness.  Through Elena, the reader can discover the secret power that acquiring knowledge has on the soul and the beauty of self-learning which can only be revealed to those who experience it.

Ferrante’s writing flows beautifully and is easy to follow.  I love the way she speaks the truth and tells the untellable.  She reveals the messiness of our deepest thoughts and our irrational superstitions. She shows us self-destructive sentiments we do not dare to admit out loud, not even to ourselves like jealousy, envy, or like sometimes hating those we should be loving.  She has the ability to make a reader feel like she or he is normal (in fact, one hundred percent human) especially if you are a woman who has experienced the inevitable confusions of growing up. We are all still conflicted one way or another and yes, we may find an equilibrium as we get older and experience more, but that child in us lingers on and at times is fully awakened. I especially love how Ferrante is able to portray the excitement, the strong undying passion and naiveté of youth and how she then takes us with her on a journey which allows us to witness the marring effects of time and the decapitation of newness and eternal hope which were once the flagships of youth.

In those two weeks of reading bliss, I would go about completing my daily errands and ticking off to-do-lists – but I just couldn’t wait to be alone, to be seated on my couch, to feel the heaviness of Ferrante’s book on my palms, and turn its rough pages and live Elena’s volatile life through her intelligent eyes and incredible self-awareness. It has been ages since I felt that kind of excitement and anticipation for a book. So much so that when I finished reading the fourth and final book of the series – a melancholic cloud hovered for some time. I found myself wanting to read the books again so that I can relive Elena’s story, so I can be moved by her hopes and her dreams once again.  I missed her and I still miss her. We long for infinity but all stories are bound to end.

Effort in finding out more about the author has proved futile. Who Elena Ferrante is or what she represents is a mystery, making her Neapolitan Novels even more intriguing. “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” – claims the mysterious author. Doubtful. What I am sure of is this and in one word: BRILLIANT. Read the Neapolitan Novels ASAP.

Let me know what you think!