Thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend/Neapolitan Novels

(WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!)

I am currently reading the second novel in Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy, called The Story of a New Name. Last summer I finally read My Brilliant Friend, and after reading it I immediately purchased the subsequent three volumes. Being a writer and an Italophile, it’s natural that I would be interested in these books and the epic journey it takes us on. I have always longed to see Naples ever since I was a little girl, so the setting is part of the appeal. The Bildungsroman journey of the narrator who is not from a well-to-do family but intelligent and self-made also resonated with me. It is always refreshing to read things about friendship, for sometimes in our formulaically-oversexed arts culture, this theme is neglected. In an earlier post I had discussed my qualms with the Bechdel test and why it had to be either-or with women only talking about men or subjects other than men. My Brilliant Friend (this name is often used to refer to the entire series) is fascinating in that a wide variety of topics are explored by the narrator Elena/Lenù and with her best friend Lina/Lila: boys, of course, money, image, power, sexism, philosophers, neighborhood dynamics, the Mafia (largely indirectly and through a child’s eyes), sex, infidelity, and so much more. It is a compelling story, and that is what keeps me reading, though I have some criticisms as to the craft, as below.

The time span is also noteworthy, for the storyline begins in childhood and progresses through adulthood, when Lina has disappeared. There is an intelligence behind the novels that is refreshing: it’s not only about girls and their friendships and boys in school, but about larger themes of class, education, gender roles, history and politics, and social issues. Yet these never hit the reader over the head; rather, they are present and implied, and wise readers can pick up on these things. Also, there is a very subtle but profound theme running through the novels about the co-protagonist Lina–she is always associated with darkness, things that are bad, evil, deathly, even diabolical. Observe the scenes were something very bad happens: they always have to do with Lina. She and Elena are counterparts, the former providing the darkness and shadow to the light of the latter, even in terms of their physical appearances.

Ferrante (whoever she is, as the mystery still shrouds her, though the favored hypotheses seem to be translator Anita Raja or her husband Domenico Starnone) also gives us interesting surprises with the plot. The most recent one I read was in The Story of a New Name, where the buildup has the reader expecting to see or hear about the much-forbidden sex scene between the married Lina and Nino Sarratore, but instead, she pulls the ultimate switch on us and instead we see Elena having sex with Nino’s father Donato! Notice the themes of family members and infidelity: the married Lina is having an affair with Nino, while the teenaged Elena has spontaneous sex with the married Donato, the father of Nino. This crossed pairing is really quite ingenious from a literary point of view, and shows how much they are intertwined, yet counterparts and opposites.

Earlier in the novel, when there is much pressure for Lina to approve of her photographs being used in the shoe store, she finally agrees, but then “destroys” the image by covering it with shreds of dark paper. She is horribly beaten on her honeymoon, and yet she chooses not to leave her husband. Readers might argue that this is the convention of the era and she has no choice, but Lina is so strong-willed that she would do anything, societal conventions be damned, as she does when she begins an affair with Nino and becomes pregnant by him. In the first novel, she chooses not to study but to become the rich, well-dressed wife of a grocer whom she doesn’t particularly seem to love, marrying at just 16. Ferrante raises the question of agency that these teenage girls/young women have during this era, and how they are finding the freedoms they can have within their society, and then also creating their freedoms as well.

In writing this, I see the strengths of the novels that I haven’t always seen when I am reading them. This brings me to my criticisms of the tetralogy. The books should have been probably edited down to at least two-thirds if not half of their lengths. There is simply too much detail, unnecessary detail, and not necessarily the details we want. Some sections and passages are too long–what happens at the grocery store, each little minute, blow-by-blow report of the characters–whereas others are too short: Elena’s experiences in tutoring wealthy students, what really happens at school, the tensions with her own family as she goes on for further education, and her first year at university. Ferrante sometimes rushes through these important periods by summing up everything in a paragraph or two of exposition; her choices for scene versus exposition are not always in balance.

Another major criticism I have is that, especially in the second novel, the narration is so heavily focused on the narrator in the first person that the narrative distance is almost always to close. We are not able to step back and see the bigger picture, everything is filtered through Elena’s eyes, and there is not much dialogue, so we have to put a lot of trust in her that she is a reliable narrator. Therefore, there is too much tell and not enough show; everything is reported through Elena’s eyes and this does not allow us to decide things for ourselves. As a result, sometimes the novel becomes very plodding in its tone–yet another round of someone did something to someone and Elena watched it and is telling us. Yes, it is true that the novel is primarily about the friendship between Elena and Lina, but it is like putting a camera on two characters on close up during an entire film and rarely zooming out or giving us a long shot.

We don’t get so much of the setting, which is a shame in such a vibrant, noisy, and colorful city as Naples. Even the gorgeous paradise of Ischia is given the short shrift. The sensuality of the atmosphere is neglected, there are minimal descriptions of the food, the colors, the faces. There are too many minor characters with similar names, and though there is a guide at the beginning of each novel, it is still quite a task to keep up with who is whom. The sad byproduct of this is that some of the characters become two-dimensional, they are filler and don’t really serve a greater purpose. This is not particular only to Elena Ferrante: we can see this in Tolstoy’s epic novels and the works of other writers as well.

This is not to say that Ferrante’s novels are not enjoyable; they are! However, the execution is sometimes flawed and for those of us reading them first in English, there is always a layer of translation which inevitably makes for a different work than the Urtext. One must commend Ann Goldstein for her incredible work on such a large task, for translation is a literary art in and of itself. My goal is to read the novels in Italian once I am finished with the English (or to listen to them on Italian audiobooks, as a friend suggested), to see how the nuances of the words play out and also to see where the differences are highlighted between Italian and Neapolitan dialect. This issue is something that Anglophones may not be aware of, the significance of dialects in Italy and how they are regarded in terms of class and education (not unlike how in America there is an implicit condescension toward Southern accents.) In sum, I have tremendous respect for what Ferrante has accomplished with these works, I have enjoyed reading them and will continue to read them, even as I evaluate the craft with a writer’s eye. And I indeed recommend them for interested readers.