elena ferrantes neapolitan novels books 1 and 2

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Books 1 and 2…Or, “My Brilliant Friend’s New Name” [A Reader’s Journal]

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Books 1 and 2…Or, “My Brilliant Friend’s New Name” [A Reader’s Journal]My Brilliant Friend
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #1
Written by Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein
Audiobook read by Hillary Huber
Published by Europa Editions on September 25th 2012
ISBN: 9781609458638
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
Format: audiobook
Pages: 336
Source: public library via Overdrive

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.
The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.
Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a trilogy, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.

I finished the audiobook version of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four books in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels series, over a month ago and intended to write up my thoughts about it then, but I struggled to find the time to get them in order. I was also distracted by the abrupt way the novel ended and eager to see how the story picked up in Book Two, The Story of a New Name. I devoured …New Name in audio just as eagerly once my library hold came in, and decided to wait and write the whole series up at once. (As you can see, I changed my mind about that decision too.)

While each of the Neapolitan Novels can stand alone, it’s soon evident that Ferrante is telling a single story over their four volumes and nearly 2000 pages. She immerses readers in the day-to-day, present lives of Elena and Lila, the two women whose conflicted decades-long friendship is the heart of the novels, while hinting at what awaits them via flashbacks and foreshadowing. Halfway through the telling of their story and barely 25 years into these characters’ lives, I can still only guess at where all of this is going and how she’ll take it there.

{Elena’s} journey …is revealed in a kind of Neapolitan bildungsroman that traverses the long afternoons of childhood, girlhood, adolescence, motherhood. Stretching out over more than 1,500 pages, the [four] books have as many characters and subplots as a nineteenth-century novel. But at their heart, they follow the intense friendship and rivalry between Elena and Raffaella Cerullo, known to others as Lina and to Elena as Lila, from the miserable outskirts of Naples after World War II, through the economic boom of the 1960s and political turmoil of the 1970s, to the present day. By turns, both Lila and Elena are seen to be the brilliant friend of the other; their lives, inextricably connected, dovetail and diverge over decades.

–from “Italy’s Great, Mysterious Storyteller” by Rachel Donadio | The New York Review of Books

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: A Brief, Spoiler-Free Summation of 800 Pages (So Far)

Many of the details Ferrante evokes so well in these first two books are those of the life of a working-class, mid-twentieth-century Naples neighborhood. We meet Elena and Lila as young schoolgirls and accompany them into their early twenties through the first two novels. They are both bright children with ambitions focused on getting rich and escaping their neighborhood and their city. Each considers the other the “brilliant friend” of the first novel.

We see one girl further her education and eventually make that escape; the other will get rich and fight to get out. They will quarrel with each other and support each other, sometimes reluctantly. They will be pulled into the loyalties and conflicts of their families and neighbors, and pull back out again. The plot points are the narrative of everyday living, sometimes heightened for dramatic effect. I think there are novels one reads “to see what happens” and novels one reads “to see what happens to these people in this place“; Ferrante’s story falls into the second category.

The Neapolitan novels are full of mob hits, political violence, and natural disasters. But they’re primarily about the domestic lives of women: the turmoil of being a daughter, a mother, a friend; the ways that violence infiltrates households, forming and deforming girlhood. Her fiction isn’t interested in what it means to be human broadly, but in what it means to be a woman at a specific time and place. In interviews*, Ferrante has said that the ambition of her writing is to make “the facts of ordinary life […] extraordinarily gripping when read,” which well captures the genius of her fiction.

–from “The Genius of Making Elena Ferrante’s Book Covers Look Like ‘Chick-Lit'” – The Atlantic

This Time It’s Personal

Ferrante writes of characters speaking in “dialect” (idiomatic Neapolitan) versus speaking in “Italian”; characters who live clustered together in apartment buildings; and characters who argue by yelling and throwing things and carrying long-lasting grudges against each other. I’ve known those people. I’m gaining some insights into my mother’s Southern Italian extended family. I’m discovering that some of the habits and behaviors I’ve always thought of as characteristically “Di Meo” or “Corsino” may actually be characteristic of the culture they came from. We’ve changed as we’ve moved and grown away from that culture, but we can still recognize it.

As Ferrante shows me the stories of Lila and Elena, she’s also showing me parts of my own story. As I prepare for my first trip to Italy next year–a trip that will probably not include Naples or much of the country south of Rome–I’m getting excited to discover more. I didn’t expect the Neapolitan Novels to be part of this preparation, but now they are. Even though I’m not done with them yet, I feel that they’re going to become part of that small, select group of novels that’s become part of me.

Going Back for More

Obviously, I’ve changed my mind about not saying anything about these books until I’m done with them all. I’m afraid of forgetting some of what I’d like to say about this series if I wait until I get to the end.

I have the audio edition of the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, on library hold right now. Meanwhile, I’ve ordered the entire series in print and should have it in hand this week.

The details are what make these stories so thoroughly involving, and I will want to talk more about them. But it will be hard to talk about the details without knowing how to spell them. I need to see the names and places and other words untranslated from the original Italian. I’ll keep the audios on hold, but may be mixing them with print as I continue the series.

*Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym used by an Italian author of fiction who believes the work should speak for itself and does not do public appearance or in-person interviews.

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  1. Everyone seems to love her work so I’ve had it on my wish list for a while.

    1. One of the links I included in this post talks about the book covers for this series, and they’re a big reason I avoided it for quite awhile. But as I learned more about what was actually going on inside those covers I got interested, and with my trip coming up next year the timing seemed right.

  2. I think it was JoAnn who loved these so much. I’ve got the first one on my Kindle, but am wondering if I should also do audio. Decisions, decisions. Plus I’ll have to be in the right mood. Your post here has attracted me to the books mightily though. 🙂

    1. I’d recommend the audio. Hillary Huber reads the entire series, and while some of her Italian pronunciation is a little inconsistent on the first book, she gets on track pretty quickly. I just started the third book in print, but we’ll see how far I get with it in that format before the audiobook hold comes in :-).