I was asked by someone recently what I was reading and I said that I was part-way through My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Ah, came the reply: I haven’t read the Neapolitan novels because everyone seems to rave about them and I’m holding out.
I bought the first in the series – My Brilliant Friend – last autumn and would have read it sooner if it hadn’t ended up on a high shelf. A re-ordering of the book shelves resulted in it becoming more accessible. I started it and resented any distraction that tore me away.
I’m now halfway through the second book – The Story of a New Name. It’s a very long time since I devoured a book as I’m devouring these. I hardly notice that I’m turning the pages. I’m oblivious to time passing. I’ve become one of the people who rave about the Neapolitan novels.
I’ve tried to work out what it is about the books that makes them so special. On one analysis, little happens. Two girls in a poor area of Naples become friends and the books are an account of that friendship through the eyes of one of the girls, the narrator. They attend school; they have other friends; they become teenagers; they have boyfriends; one of them marries; the other attends high school.
It’s the story of girls and women in traditional Neapolitan society, considering the roles of women in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both girls are highly intelligent, but only one of them goes beyond elementary school. There are battles to be educated and encounters – both bruising and illuminating – with the world beyond the narrow confines of their neighbourhood. We see the difficulties in maintaining friendships and family relations when education takes one of the girls to a point where she no longer feels part of the community she grew up in. And she doesn’t belong – at least, not yet – to the world outside that community.
There’s the competition between friends, as well as the ease of long-familiarity. Not being quite sure where you stand, whether you’re the person who’s moved on or who’s been left behind and whether that matters. I defy anyone to read it and not see something of their own friendships in it.
I know that when I get to the end of the fourth and final book, part of me will mourn that there’s no more to read. There are other books by Elena Ferrante and I’ll read them, but I doubt they’ll be quite the same as the Neapolitan novels.