Although Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels were published over a period of years, it took me until just now to finally dip into them — to catch, as it's called, Ferrante Fever. I am so glad that I did.
As Meghan O' Rourke wrote in The Guardian, "Ferrante’s subject — it is almost an obsession — is the way women are shaped, distorted and sometimes destroyed by their social milieu (and by the men around them)." Although I took the voyage to Naples, I don't know a ton of men in my immediate proximity who have (I know it's a bit of a generalization, and plenty of guys have read these books — but, hey, I'm just speaking from personal experience here). Maybe it's because of the subject matter, but I wish more of my male friends would spring to read these books; the time spent with Elena, Lina, and their concentric social circles makes for one of the greatest, and most illuminating, reading experiences available. But I probably don't have to tell you that, especially if you're sitting here reading this post.
As a man who has binge-read all four books over the past two weeks, I'd like to share what I've learned (and insist that other men do as I did. READ, GUYS.). In the four Neapolitan Novels (with September 1's The Story of the Lost Child wrapping up the quartet), Ferrante examines female friendship on a cellular level. I got a look into the inner-workings of women's relationships with each other in a way I never did before, and here are six things I took away from Ferrante's novels that I never quite knew otherwise:
Women Are Intuitive In A Way Men Can Never Hope To Be (Or, Perhaps, Are Never Attuned Enough To Be)
The women of Naples have an almost magical language: they're oracular, clairvoyant knockouts. In each book, from childhood through adolescence and eventually maturity, Elena, Lina and the countless women around them (Carmela, Ada, Gigliola, Pinuccia, Nunzia, Immacolata, and others) communicate without speaking, and understand without having all the details. They seem to predict far in advance of any indication. They have intuition that makes them knowing and sensing in a way that separates from from the men and links them with each other, and it elevates their power within their neighborhood. A thread of superstition and the imbuing of women with all-knowingness is a thread through all four books. It's kind of amazing.
It's A Little Known Secret: The "F" Word Is "FEMALE"
Men are quick to anger and slow to forgive. If any fraction of the events that transpire between Lila and Elena were to occur between men, their friendships would immolate. Yet, women seem to be different (obviously!), stronger, dosed with pragmatism, and pliable personality. Over the course of four books and many decades, there is no shortage of horrific acts the women of the neighborhood go through themselves or cause others to experience. Regardless, there is always room at the table or someone to watch the kids. Squad, indeed.
Your Best Friend Will Motivate You Like Nobody Else Can
From the beginning of Book One through the end of Book Four, Lila and Elena understand one another in a staggeringly intimate way. Secrets (however long they take to be found out) are no imposition. Major revelations, confessions, grievances are casually tossed out and left to land. As a result, there is no formality or hesitation. They push each other toward successes, celebrations, and romances while also guiding each other through losses, outbursts, and breakdowns. Neither of them, try as they might, can replicate that bond elsewhere.
Motherhood Is A Form Of Battle
As Lila and Elena move into motherhood, it broadens and strengthens their already decades-long friendship. Suddenly, they are providing care, compassion, and clothes for one another's children — while not-so-subtly competing for Mother of The Year. As the children grow, Lila and Elena's relationship blossoms, while their relationships with others are prone to withering or dying. Even when men and fathers are more present than not, Lila and Elena know they can only be most honest with each other.
You Can Take The Girl Out Of Her Hometown...
The violence in Naples is present in the first book, and only mounts throughout the following three. Characters come and go. Lila and Elena stay together and see each other through it all. Even when living apart, they stay in touch. If not by voice or location, then by proxy and thought. Theirs is a connection forged in blood, whether their own or that shed around them. A shared history makes for an indelible bond.
"It's Friendship, Friendship, Just The Perfect Blendship"
When I first started reading My Brilliant Friend, I was appalled by the way Lila and Elena egged on one another, or regretfully took part in something they knew they shouldn't. Maybe I was a bit too moralistic. By the time I finished the last page of The Story of the Lost Child, though, I couldn't see through the tears. (Truth.) Theirs was the deepest friendship, painfully and beautifully recorded with unsparing detail, that I could recall in literature. What I first saw as baiting, sniping, manipulating or any other kind of emotional battery, was instead just what friends do. Lila and Elena cared so deeply for each other that their relationship, their dependence, and, really, their love was built on this complex and varied foundation in a way I hadn't before seen or been able to understand. They were two different people who spent decades not trying to best or become each other, but to be one. That's just, I think, how female friendship — and the deepest of friendships — works.
That's all to say? Guys: Read. Empathize. You should feel pangs of identification when reading about certain characters and work to change that. There's a reason these books have become a phenomenon. You don't need to be a woman or from Naples to understand why. You just need to have been a friend.
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