The Barnes and Noble Review: Its the bristling, uncompromising, messy humanity of Ferrantes characters that make them so vivid.
Date: Sep 1 2015
A wise author knows that granting a main character her heart’s desire is not simply fan service, it’s a fascinating way to create conflict. Getting what we think we want—in life as in fiction—can cause as many problems as it solves. It tests us. It reveals us. It forces us to wonder, “What now?”
In the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s blistering series of Neapolitan novels, The Story Of The Lost Child, Ferrante has at last allowed her protagonist Elena to come together with Nino, the man she has been in love with since they were children. Neither Elena nor Nino is young anymore, at least not in the traditional sense; both are well-married with children of their own. Separately, each managed to escape the poverty and corruption of their Naples neighborhood and create fulfilling lives for themselves elsewhere in the country as writers, teachers, and public intellectuals.
But they cannot reject their roots—or, at heart, they don’t wish to. Nino and Elena begin an affair, exchanging carefully calibrated marriages and life-of-the-mind successes for chaos and melodrama. In more than one sense, then, they return to the place they came from, the place to which their friend Lila—possibly the smartest, most charismatic, and most frustrated of all of them—has also returned.
Lila and Elena have always been devoted to and competitive with each other. As children they snatched each others’ dolls. They coveted the same scholastic recognition. And, in the second volume, The Story Of A New Name, Lila too left her husband for a doomed affair with Nino.
These characters could have carried on this love triangle without ever leaving the streets where they grew up; yet they made great efforts to leave, to fulfill their potential, before allowing themselves to be drawn back as though by the tide. Why, at a moment when things seem to be going right, do they make self-destructive choices?
Because they are human. It’s the bristling, uncompromising, messy humanity of Ferrante’s characters that make them so vivid. More than lifelike, they feel as though they must exist, that Elena Ferrante, the famously pseudonymous author, must be her protagonist and narrator Elena Greco, and that Lila too must be out there somewhere, making another fortune and compelling everyone around her simply by being herself: impatient, stubborn, spiky, sly, and, yes, brilliant.
Whether they’re based on real people or not, of course, we cannot know. Nor does it really matter. These books are a feat whether appreciated as fiction or as memoir dressed up in fiction’s finest clothing. They capture not only the nuances and intricacies of longstanding friendship but also the ambivalent relationships women can have with aspects of themselves.
Lila is an inconsistent mother to her first son. And although Elena loves her two daughters, once she begins a relationship with Nino and her career reaches new heights, she neglects them. She despises herself for this, but not enough to stop.
I soon discovered that I was getting used to being happy and unhappy at the same time….It was humiliating to have to admit that a little fame and love for Nino could obscure Dido and Elsa. And yet it was so.
Passionate women in literature have, for centuries, prioritized romance over motherhood and been punished for it: Anna Karenina, Daisy Buchanan, Scarlett O’Hara, Becky Sharp, and Emma Bovary all ignored their children while following their hearts. These mothers are presented to us by male authors as lessons. Elena, who unlike the others gets to tell her own story, is rueful and clear-eyed about her own limitations, but never self-pitying; even when tragedy does strike, she and Lila both remain people to the end and not cautionary tales.
Part of this can be attributed to Ferrante’s ferocious skill as a storyteller. However overheated her subject material gets, her writing remains the perfect temperature. The early novels in the series, set in the postwar grittiness of a Europe still teetering between Communism and Fascism, feel like literary version of Italian neorealist cinema. The later ones are triumphs of what might be called the contemporary feminist canon since, as well as any book of politics I can think of, they articulate the challenges and at the same time the vital importance of allowing women autonomy over their own lives.
Throughout the Neapolitan novels, women struggle against the reductive roles they are meant to play: obedient daughter, attractive virgin, docile wife, patient mother. Elena and Lila represent the first generation to challenge those long-held conventions. Like the Israelis wandering in the desert, having escaped centuries of slavery, neither Elena nor Lila makes perfect use of her new freedom. Yet both remain loyal—not “fickle,” as Elena’s ex-mother-in-law once calls her out of spite, but devoted to their neighborhood and families of origin (however disappointing), to each other as flawed but fascinating human beings, and to their own fiercely held beliefs about their abilities and their worth.
And, over a thousand pages, both remain some of the most memorable and illuminating company a reader could ask for.