The New York Times: Ms. Ferrantes Neapolitan quartet is utterly distinctive, immersing us not just in a time and place, but deep within the psychological consciousness of its narrator.
Date: Sep 3 2015
Elena and Lila, the two heroines of Elena Ferrante’s dazzling Neapolitan quartet of novels, are one of those unforgettable pairs who define each other and take their place in our collective imagination as a matched set — like Prince Hal and Falstaff, Settembrini and Naphta, Vladimir and Estragon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise.
They grew up best friends in a poor, violent, crime-ridden neighborhood in post-World War II Naples. Elena was the good girl, the hard-working, conscientious one, lucky enough to win a place at a decent school, and to escape to a new life in Florence; she becomes a successful author and marries a professor from a prominent family. Lila was the fierce, impulsive, erratic one — a “terrible, dazzling girl” who intimidates everyone with her sharp elbows and sharper tongue. She leaves school, marries young and starts a successful business; while she becomes a kind of power broker in the old neighborhood, she remains trapped there, her radiant artistic gifts unrealized.
With the three earlier installments of the quartet (“My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”) and this stunning final volume, “The Story of the Lost Child,” Ms. Ferrante has turned the stories of Lila and Elena into an extraordinary epic that bridges six decades and unfolds into a portrait of a neighborhood, a city in transition and a country lurching through the second half of the 20th century into the next.
The notion of tracing the stories of two women over the long arc of their lives is hardly new — Arnold Bennett and Richard Yates both drew powerful portraits of two very different sisters in their novels “The Old Wives’ Tale” (1908) and “The Easter Parade” (1976) — but Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is utterly distinctive, immersing us not just in a time and place, but deep within the psychological consciousness of its narrator, Elena (who, not coincidentally, shares the first part of her creator’s pen name). These four novels have the symphonic intricacy of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” and the intensity and sense of place of Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet.” They are ingeniously plotted, with clues to thriller-like disappearances deftly and invisibly planted (beginning in the first volume, with the vanishing of a 60-something Lila, and circling back in time to the even more devastating loss of a child), and at the same time, rooted in an understanding of their two heroines that is utterly visceral and immediate.
Indeed, Ms. Ferrante’s writing — lucid and direct, but with a cyclonic undertow — is very much a mirror of both her heroines. Elena has a decidedly linear approach to life, and, as a narrator, she often takes a matter-of-fact tone, but that appearance of control belies the roiling, chaotic, Lila-like emotions beneath. This constant pull between detachment and turmoil (or, to put it in terms of the classics that the author loves, between Apollonian rationality and Dionysian ferocity) creates a kind of alternating electrical current that lends these novels a compelling narrative tension.
We are made to identify with Elena’s struggles to balance the competing demands of her career, her children and her lover, Nino, just as we are made to understand Lila’s impatience with her class-conscious, often pretentious friend, and her daily frustrations with the swirling criminal and political corruption in their old neighborhood, which grows ever more clamorous as Communists, socialists and right-wingers collide in the 1960s and ’70s.
Like Alice Munro and Doris Lessing, Ms. Ferrante (a pseudonym for a writer who has never revealed her identity) captures the day-to-day texture of women’s lives: the effort it takes to hold onto some core sense of self in the face of endless, banal household tasks — diapers and dusting and cleaning the kitchen — and the demands of time and attention made by husbands and lovers. The difficulty, for those with artistic ambitions, of clearing mental space in the face of mundane worries about paying the rent and making supper for the children. The often dizzying gap between fiercely held beliefs — about politics, philosophy, feminism — and the compromises of their daily lives. The collision and confluence of personal family dramas and larger events on the public stage.
The ever-fluctuating relationship between Elena and Lila remains at the center of all four novels. They are at once best friends and confidantes, and rivals for the same man; cheerleaders for each other’s literary ambitions, and, at the same time, jealous rivals; sisters in commiseration over the travails of pregnancy; and competitive mothers, worrying about whose daughter is prettier and more gifted.
Lila tends to be the aggressor, bullying Elena, making her feel guilty about not spending more time with her children and leaving her husband to run off with Nino (who, long ago, had been Lila’s lover). She is a troublemaker and pot stirrer — she has Nino followed and tells Elena her unpleasant findings. But if Lila is often manipulative and undermining, she can also be generous and devoted. She takes care of Elena’s daughters when book tours and the feckless Nino take Elena out of town, and she takes Elena’s ailing mother (a matriarch as cruel and cunning as Tony Soprano’s monstrous mother, Livia) to the hospital when she collapses.
We see Lila through Elena’s eyes in these books, but Ms. Ferrante simultaneously gives us a cleareyed perspective on Elena — her annoying need to feel that she’s surpassed her childhood friend, whose brilliance she has always envied; her selfishness in placing her writing career and her passion for Nino before the needs of her children; her almost mercenary willingness to turn Lila’s life into material for her books.
Over the years, as age and success and misfortune take their toll, the relationship between Lila and Elena shifts and mutates — and yet, in many respects, remains the same. Sometimes one’s life seems ascendant. At other times, the wheel of fortune appears to turn, favoring the other, or inflicting terrible losses on them both.
Ms. Ferrante knows her heroines so intimately (and their place in a constellation of relationships within an incestuously close neighborhood, controlled by families with criminal and political connections) that she’s able to show us how one decision, one accident, one misunderstanding can trigger a tumble of dominoes among family members and neighbors, how clashes between mothers and daughters are repeated generation to generation, how present-day situations are rooted in the geologic layers of the past — in old loyalties, betrayals and resentments.
In “The Story of the Lost Child,” Elena returns to Naples after leaving her husband and finds herself reimmersed in the lives of Lila and her family, and in the community whose gravitational pull she once tried so desperately to escape. The novels are beautifully enmeshed, one with another, as if Ms. Ferrante had the entire quartet in her head from the start. There is something musical about the intertwined lives of Elena and Lila, like Lila’s cyclical view of Naples and its history: “where everything was marvelous and everything became gray and irrational and everything sparkled again, as when a cloud passes over the sun and the sun appears to flee, a timid, pale disk, near extinction,” before the cloud dissolves, and it’s suddenly “so bright you have to shield your eyes with your hand.”