A curious thing has happened: all of a sudden, an elusive Italian novelist is garnering adoration and speculation in American popular culture. From The New York Times’ “Who is Elena Ferrante?” article to Entertainment Weekly’s interview with the author, interest abounds. No one knows who Elena Ferrante really is so critics and fans alike question whether the author is a man or a woman and why they refuse to divulge more.
I have written about Elena Ferrante here before and can confirm that the Neapolitan quartet of books just keep getting better. The first, My Brilliant Friend (2012), introduces the reader to Elena, the narrator, and her friend and rival, Lila, who meet and come of age in 1950s and ’60s Naples. Naples is portrayed as a backwater, a place that both Elena and Lila long to escape.
While the allure of this author increases, for some, due to her inaccessibility, it is her writing, which is intimate, unsparing, and accessible emotionally and intellectually, that has won her ardent fans. The third book in the quartet, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, was published in English earlier this month and the fourth and final book is projected for release in September 2015.
What I love about Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is that they delve into a complex, mercurial friendship between women with such unflinching honesty. Emily Gould, in her section in the New York Times piece, wrote:
There aren’t many books that illuminate the inner workings of this kind of relationship between women; Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin both get at some of the jealous toxicity, the worship mixed with disgust and enduring love that women can feel for each other, but only Ferrante has anatomized such a bond over decades in so much detail. Friendship is more like a romantic relationship than we mostly allow ourselves to think, and Ferrante understands its lulls and moments of reinfatuation, how rifts between friends can be even more painful than breakups between lovers.
Ferrante plumbs the depths of Elena and Lila, their life choices, and what lies between what is said and withheld. Each book ends at a precipice for the characters; you yearn to be able to keep reading, to find where life will take them next. I am thankful for Europa Editions for making these books available and for Ann Goldstein’s fine translations because I have been wholly absorbed in these two women’s lives. Elena Ferrante deserves all of the attention she is getting, but she is absolutely right that where it should be focused is on the books rather than the writer.