The Power of a Series: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

While there seems to be agreement in popular culture that many television series are becoming just as if not more than sophisticated and mature than stand-alone feature films, there is less agreement or even conversation about this phenomenon in literature. Most series are given short shrift as if it is less remarkable to develop characters and story and themes over a span of books rather than in one. Lois McMaster Bujold has often pointed out that there is not enough written, certainly academically, about the arc and development within longer series, especially genre series.

I just read the first two in an Italian quartet that reminded me just how powerful a series can be. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels capture the lives of two girls, Elena and Lila, in 1950s/60s Naples. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena, the narrator, and Lila meet in 1st grade and the rivalry at the heart of their friendship is frozen like perspex the moment Lila drops Elena’s beloved doll down a dirty stairwell. In school, they compete and parry intelligence, but while Lila finds learning effortlessly she is not allowed by her family to continue past elementary school. Elena is allowed to go on and fulfills the promise that Lila cannot when she must go to work in her father’s shoe repair shop.

Ferrante captures the cruelty and everyday violence of these girl’s Naples neighborhood, the down-at-heels existence they live, the domestic violence that effects them all and is accepted as a matter of course. The Story of a New Name starts where My Brilliant Friend ends, with Lila marrying a wealthy boy in the neighborhood at the age of 16 while Elena continues to strive for high marks in school. Ferrante manages to infuse a kind of riveting reality in these novels, an intensity of feeling and thought that hews true.

Book groups would find much to discuss in these books, in the mystery surrounding the reclusive author and in the ways she depicts women’s lives. When the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is released in English later this year, groups that have started with the first two will not be able to resist finding out where life takes these two memorable characters. (The fourth book is due out in 2015, according to Europa Editions Editor in Chief Michael Reynolds.) And I hope they talk about what linked books can accomplish and the value that readers can find in series that show development and lived experience over time.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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