Are you looking to read an expansive family saga? Or perhaps you would like to read about a large cast of compelling characters, intertwined in a complex web of relationships. Maybe you would like to read about one of the most nuanced and realistic portrayals of a female friendship put to pen. If any or all of these topics interest you, then the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante should quickly be added to the top of your to-read list.
The Neapolitan novels are a series of four books, originally written in Italian by Elena Ferrante and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. The series follows the story of two friends, Elena and Lila, throughout their lives from when they first meet as children in their working-class neighborhood in Naples. In my opinion, the most compelling aspect of these novels is the friendship between Elena and Lila. Ferrante paints such a realistic portrait of friendship between women, never shying away from showing the intensity and intimacy that comes with a love that spans decades. Their friendship is sweet and brutal, liberating and suffocating and throughout the novels, even in the moments where the two are distant, the reader always gets the sense that they are each other’s greatest love.
Furthermore, these novels are phenomenal examples of character study. The cast of characters from the neighbourhood and beyond are enchanting, repulsive, rich, and nuanced. Reading the novels, I was struck by how many aspects (the good and the bad) of myself and the people I know, I saw reflected in the characters- especially in the women. It is a testament to Ferrante’s craft that she was able to evoke empathy, even when the readerbis confronted by the characters’ ugliest traits. This series is an overtly feminist work, the success of which is in large part owed to the direct, biting, and unflinching writing of Ferrante. In her signature angry tone, she is able to capture the interior lives of women like no other. She explores the joys, disappointments, and heartache of being a woman in the patriarchal society of Italy in the 1950s. She masterfully captures the way women’s desire, passion, and intelligence are suppressed by identities of ‘wife’, ‘mother’, ‘mistress’, etc. By reading these novels, I found myself learning a little bit more about Italian life, culture, and history. This is one of the greatest strengths of fiction (especially translated fiction) – the ability to open the reader up to exploring different lives and cultures in a fun and non-intimidating way. Lastly, even with all the literary and intellectual merit of this series, it is also just so fun to read. The drama and the ups and downs in these women’s very eventful (to put it lightly) lives are just so juicy, salacious, and deeply engrossing. I could not get enough of their story, and I found myself finishing the whole series in a matter of days.