Why we love them: You know how with some books you miss the characters when the final page comes? With Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet you immerse yourself in the characters – love them, hate them, feel that you know them intimately – but by the novel’s close, you know there’s a sequel and you simply can’t wait.
Elena Greco (Lena) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila) are two young children growing up in a rough, poverty-stricken area of Naples in the 1950s. They form an intense bond of friendship that is the background to the four ‘Neapolitan’ novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend, followed by The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and the final instalment, The Story of the Lost Child, that takes us to the 1990s.
Each of the books is narrated by Elena, a brilliant student growing up in a rough neighbourhood where young girls are oppressed by their parents, and wives are routinely beaten by their husbands. The only way out is through education and Elena manages this with a combination of natural brilliance and sheer force of will. Lila, on the other hand, despite her own brilliance, gets left behind in the neighbourhood. Adolescence transforms her into a stunning young woman who captivates men and at sixteen she marries Stefano, the grocer. It quickly becomes a marriage she bitterly regrets.
Elena, bookish and with glasses, starts to feel that she is living in Lila’s shadow and she scrutinises their intense friendship and rivalry throughout the four books. In each of the novels, we become deeply immersed in the lives of these two women and those around them – their parents, lovers, friends, enemies and children. They struggle with love, marriage, adultery, betrayal, jealousy, the violence of their men, and they strive to balance the demands of marriage and parenthood with the pull of intellectual life.
The novels have been hugely successful in Italy and the rest of the world and ‘the Ferrante phenomenon’ has been much documented. Famous fans include Richard Flanagan, Gywneth Paltrow and Jeffrey Archer and critics outdo themselves with their rapturous praise of the novels (see below). “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea how explosive these works are,” said a reviewer in The Australian.
Much has been written of Elena Ferrante’s anonymity too – though she has given limited interviews with the world press, she has never publicly revealed her true identity. This, according to her publisher, has liberated her to write these brutally honest and unsentimental accounts of female friendship and rivalry. We can only be grateful for her anonymity when this is the result.
What we do know is that Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is the author of seven novels. In addition to the Neapolitan novels, she has written The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter and she is one of Italy’s most highly acclaimed authors. Fragments, a selection of interviews, letters and occasional writings by Ferrante, will be published in early 2016. Each of the four Neapolitan novels has been translated Ann Goldstein. She is an editor at The New Yorker and a recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Prize.
Praise for Elena Ferrante’s novels:
“The best thing I’ve read this year, far and away… one of the great writers of our time.” – Richard Flanagan
“Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante’s work prepares you for the ferocity of it… This is a woman’s story told with such truthfulness that it is not so much a life observed as it is felt.’ – The New York Times
“I say this with more confidence than I have felt during 15 years of book reviewing: the Neapolitan novels are extraordinary.” – Sunday Times
“Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before…in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep.” – London Review of Books
“Ferrante tackles girlhood and friendship with amazing force.” – Gwyneth Paltrow