Now I have finished the fourth and last of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. My thoughts on each of the others here: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The narrator is a women from a poor neighborhood in Naples who against all odds becomes educated and is a successful novelist and a public figure, writing social commentary as well. At the center of each book is the connection between Elena and her friend Lina who despite not going beyond the fifth grade is very smart, powerful, and manipulates those around her.
These books seem so personal it is impossible to see them as anything other than autobiographical. Elena says,
I gradually rediscovered an aptitude that I had displayed years before, with my previous book. I had a natural ability to transform small private events into public reflection. Every night I improvised successfully, starting from my own experience. I talked about the world I came from, about the poverty and squalor, male and also female rages…
The fact that the author writes under a pen name and guards her identity carefully adds to the intrigue. Is she writing about her own life, including how she writes? Assuming she writes from personal experience makes her stories feel especially powerful. When she writes about not always meeting her children's needs, when she faces the fact (over and over) that only though willfulness has she been able to believe Nino tells her the truth, when she admits her jealous and competitive feelings about her friend, these feel quite real and honest because they happened to her.
In response to an interview question in Vanity Fair about feminism the author says,
I grew up with the idea that if I didn’t let myself be absorbed as much as possible into the world of eminently capable men, if I did not learn from their cultural excellence, if I did not pass brilliantly all the exams that world required of me, it would have been tantamount to not existing at all. Then I read books that exalted the female difference and my thinking was turned upside down. I realized that I had to do exactly the opposite: I had to start with myself and with my relationships with other women—this is another essential formula—if I really wanted to give myself a shape.
The two women in these books are looking for ways to come to terms with being themselves and connecting to each other in ways that make sense, finding what makes you a woman with respect. I think Anne Marie Slaughter's Unfinished Business about the necessity for all of society to value care is a key component.
All my adult life I have wondered why throughout history and across almost all cultures half of the population is treated so badly. From the Greeks' belief that a child's characteristics are based upon its father to the current efforts to control women's reproductive lives, the message is clear. If you ask yourself what is it that makes us female and you find the answer includes characteristics that are the object of scorn by half the population, well, aargh.
While I have not recounted the twists and turns in the lives of the cast of characters that I have found so riveting, I find it more important to remember the thoughts Elena Ferrante has brought to the surface.
Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, Europa Editions, 2015, 480 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.