Yes, everyone is talking about Elena Ferrante, and for good reason. First, she’s a mystery. “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, a choice driven by her belief (and yes, I am convinced she’s a woman) that a work, if it’s any good, should be able to stand on its own. The absence of a true name forces readers to live with the discomfort of not-knowing, an unfamiliar position for us 21st century people, and it’s this absence that magnifies the first in a quartet of books known collectively as “The Neapolitan Novels,” because My Brilliant Friend begins with the disappearance of one of its main characters, also named Elena, that mirrors, quite literally, the type of separation the person behind “Elena Ferrante” seeks to embody.
The cross-pollination between “Elena Ferrante’s” desire for absence and her protagonist Elena, creates a type of fusion between characters, which is precisely what these books are about. And so much more. Similiar to Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose thoughts on writing I value deeply and hold dear: “I had a feeling that novels tend to obscure the world instead of showing it… It’s the same with films with their attention to narrative structure.” –The Paris Review, Elena Ferrante’s ideas about an author’s responsibility to a completed work is refreshing because in it is an implicit demand for something writers are denied: time to write. By removing herself from the publicity and promotion that’s expected from authors of our era, she’s re-claiming for herself what’s been taken, what belongs to her as a writer, what belongs to all writers, and that’s solitude and privacy.
My Brilliant Friend is a single novel that because of its length is being published in several volumes. It follows two girls, the brilliant and enraged Elena and intellectual and yearning Lila, from ages 6 to 66, in 1950s Naples. This is one of the few books that gets female rage and female friendship right, because it goes beyond the friendship, back to the original relationship, the one between mothers and daughters, and when it comes to this primary relationship “Ferrante” manages to “stick her finger into an infected and open wound, to prod it and remind oneself where and why it hurts” writing so poignantly about the desperation most girls have to separate from their mothers, their hyper-vigilant watch over their bodies, begging their developing hips not to fall victim to genetics, not to create the same shapes as their mother.
There is such agency in these three books: The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Novels) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels.) I devoured them like a savage. These deeply feminist books made me want to learn, to become more educated, and I can’t remember the last work of fiction that’s elicited that type of response in me. I haven’t read with such abandon since childhood. I urge you to pick up the first of these books and I hope that you find yourself with the same Elena Ferrante addiction that I now happily have.
One thing before you go, forgive the covers. They’re awful, but the books are not.