Monday, August 31, 2015

Best Friends

II resisted as long as I could. I had read about Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, much admired by literary critics and other writers, but I'm always wary of translations, and did I really want to commit to reading all four? But I was intrigued by that fact that in this day when authors seem forced to relentlessly promote their works, the mysterious “Elena Ferrante” (her pen name) has managed to keep her identity a secret and do only the bare minimum of interviews (written only).

I've now finished the first – My Brilliant Friend, and am halfway through the second – The Story of a New Name, and there's no stopping me. The books follow the lives of two childhood friends, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, beginning in postwar Naples, where there is little escape from grinding poverty and limited opportunity. Both girls are bright and ambitious, and they imagine exciting lives for themselves. Although Lila is the stronger, the more imaginative and determined of the two, her parents refuse to educate her past elementary school, so it is Elena, her “brilliant friend” who continues her education, while Lila marries young and seems locked into the life she had hoped to escape. And maybe she ultimately does?? I'm only on book two.

I wonder if part of the reason that Ferrante wants her privacy is that her works seems so autobiographical. Elena and Lila are such vivid characters, with a friendship and a rivalry that is fierce and complex, and all the neighbors (and there a lot of them – the index of characters at the beginning of the book is extremely helpful) are rendered so sharply that they are completely convincing. Was Ferrante taking notes all through her childhood? That's how it feels.

Elena and Lila are strong women, and they are angry, sometimes at each other, often at the world. I have to find out how it all ends.