3 Big Reasons The Neapolitan Novels Are The Greatest Modern Series
If you've raced through Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child by now, you've probably come to the same conclusion as me: the Neapolitan Novels are the greatest modern series, bar none. And, If you're even more like me, you probably spent last night — and really, this past summer — gathered with close friends begging them to hurry up and read Ferrante so you can all share a bottle of wine and spend the night debating the endlessly fraught friendship of Elena and Lila. There is so, so much to talk about.
As much as I don't like to admit it, it's unusual for a sprawling series centered on women's lives to rise to the top of must-read lists. Book series with a focus on female friendship are generally regulated to the paperback section of bookstores and labeled as lighter fare, doomed to be frowned on by the literary elite, with little to no critical praise. And although a quick glance at the Neapolitan Novels seems to point toward a similar fate with their schmaltzy covers, Ferrante's books defy simplification. As Aaron Bady noted in Literary Hub:
These are not melodramatic novels: instead of flattened and exaggerated characters, wild plot twists, and lurid sensationalism, we get deeply sensitive and realistic depictions of human beings, with all their tragic flaws and petty nobilities. If melodrama is black and white, Ferrante is all shades of gray.
So many things make this series transcendent. Although the Neapolitan Novels focus on the experience of womanhood — and all the trauma that it can entail — Ferrante ultimately subverts our expectations of what a series about women can be, indicting us of our own misplaced sexism in the process. She speaks to a culture that often does not value women or our labor and crafts an enthralling friendship that addresses experiences understood by all. Here are three of the biggest reasons why these books are the greatest modern series. (And, of course, spoilers follow; proceed with caution!)
The Friendship And Power Dynamic Between Elena And Lila
From the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante makes it clear that she isn't telling us merely a story of female friendship. Power is tipped in Elena's favor as she sets out to write about Lila, who has disappeared without a trace. "We'll see who wins this time," Elena says to herself. To describe their friendship as a competition may be understatement; Elena mentally battles to overcome Lila in intelligence, beauty, and success, but she can never quite get ahead. Lila — despite never leaving their childhood neighborhood — has accomplished things that haunt Elena, diminishing each of her successes, whether it's the publication of a book or the raising of children. But in the present, with Lila gone, Elena can achieve the ultimate mastery over her brilliant friend: telling her story as she perceives it, truly erasing the margins of Lila's life.
Although fraught and difficult, the friendship between Elena and Lila propels our interest in the series. At some point in our lives, we've dealt with a friend — maybe even a best friend — whom we've loved and cared for, but also wanted to soar past. Ferrante takes us beyond the stereotypical hair-pulling, cat-fight representations of female friendship and gives us a portrait that's all to close to real life.
The Ultimate Unknowability Of Lila
Can we ever really understand Lila? Everything we know of her is filtered through Elena's perspective, which is imperfect, spiteful, and I would even add, violent. With Lila out of the picture, Elena can frame her as she sees fit. Would Lila recount her own life similarly? Would her accomplishments be as brilliant and spectacular? While she may demure, Alice Brittan notes in Open Letters Monthly that others are in awe of Lila's brilliance. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Michele Solara, who has nursed a lifelong obsession with Lila, tells her boss at the sausage factory, "This woman is much, much more. If you let her, she’ll change shit into gold for you, she’s capable of reorganizing this whole enterprise, taking it to levels you can’t even imagine."
But all that we could have truly known of Lila is gone. In The Story of a New Name, Elena throws Lila's diaries into a river after being entrusted with them. Besides being told not to read Lila's writings, Elena not only reads, but shares her findings with us. Even our best guess at how Lila truly feels is mediated through Elena's jealousy and rage. The unreliable narrator is often one of the best measures of the strength of a story. It signals that there is always more to be sought and understood than meets the eye.
Ferrante Rewards Multiple Readings
By the time we reach The Story of the Lost Child, we have been with Elena and Lila for more than a thousand pages. Although tragedy has never been far from Lila — whether through her brother Rino's drug addiction or her abusive marriage to Stefano — the disappearance of her daughter Tina is the most crushing loss in the end, and is reflected in the parting gift — or perhaps, curse — Elena receives by mail at the conclusion of the book. The precious dolls we learned of in My Brilliant Friend make an appearance, leading us to wonder where on earth have they been for the past sixty years. Has Lila been playing some sort of twisted long game with Elena? Most likely, yes. Is it a declaration of power over her? Possibly.
We could spend hours with the abundance of literary essays on the Neapolitan Novels to figure it out — something I've spent the past week mired in — but picking up the books themselves may be more pleasurable. After all, isn't the mark of a great series immediately wanting to return and picked up what was missed? From the cruel games of friendship to the foreshadowings of Lila's disappearance to the larger political history churning alongside the characters, there is still much to be learned and absorbed.
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