It took me more than a year (possibly two) but I finished all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Normally I can’t do that but each one of these books is compelling on its own and it leaves you wondering…what ever happens to the complicated friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. And off I would go to get the next book…until finally at last I finished it with the last book in the series The Story of the Lost Child which still leaves you wondering.
By way of background the novels are set in Naples, Italy and they span the lifetime of two young girls who grow up together in the rough and tumble Naples of the 50s. Both are bright young girls but only Elena is able to continue her education through university. The beautiful, street smart and equally intelligent Lila stops going to school by grade 5 and survives by building a business for herself.
The novel is about friendship of course, and all the difficulties and the beauty that come with it. But the sprawling novels are also about social change, politics, violence, domestic violence and how staying ahead, even of those we love, is an act of survival. The competitive nature of the friendship between Elena and Lila is also about poverty and what happens when you have to fight for every scrap of recognition in a world that is hard for everyone. And yet it is friendship that binds.
In the end the novel(s) don’t offer any answers… what happened to Lila, what happened to her daughter, what was she writing, why did she disappear? Here is a woman who devoted herself to fighting gangsters in her unruly neighbourhood, who devoted herself in the end to learning everything about Naples…understanding her city inside and out and then leaving.
These books are less linear narrative then they are impressionistic art…paint thrown on a canvas of love, hatred, political structures, friendship, family…and the result is an ode to Naples. Lila Cerullo represents beauty, intelligence, history, politics, rough and tumble love, and a deep sense of right and wrong in a hard world.
I loved these books. You’ start with one not be able to stop until you’ve finished all four!