I Finally Read Elena Ferrante In The Midst Of My Postpartum Depression
Bustle's I'm So Jealous series is dedicated to the books, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and more that super fans are so jealous someone else gets to experience for the first time. In this installment, E. Ce Miller celebrates her love of the Neapolitan Novel series by Elena Ferrante.
It’s rare that a novel — or anything, for that matter — actually makes me gasp aloud. I’ve read a good bit of everything, and while my love for literature will never fade, the unpredictability of books definitely has. (That whole thing about there only being seven basic stories that humans tell, over and over again — it’s kinda true, at least in my experience.) Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novel series, of which My Brilliant Friend is the first, definitely falls directly into more than one of those essential plots: rags to riches, voyage and return, tragedy. But it's also filled with twists and turns I never saw coming. And yeah, I gasped. Loudly. More than once.
Although My Brilliant Friend had been sitting on my shelves since Ferrante Fever first made its way across the Atlantic, I hadn’t actually read it, nor the three novels that complete the quartet. Ferrante’s novels are heavy. They are very long, with lots of pages, and not-so-large print. If you’re going to sit down with My Brilliant Friend, you best be in it for the long haul. And at first, I wasn’t.
What I first thought was the “baby blues” morphed into an eight-month-long depression that nearly ended my marriage and resulted in many middle-of-the-night fantasies about leaving my baby...
Then, I had a baby, and suddenly nothing in my life was what it used to be. What I first thought was the “baby blues” morphed into an eight-month-long depression that nearly ended my marriage and resulted in many middle-of-the-night fantasies about leaving my baby with a Mary Poppins-inspired nanny, running out for groceries, and just never coming back. My closest family lived hundreds of miles away, most of my friends even further, and three days after returning home from the hospital my partner left on a work trip for six weeks — leaving me entirely alone with a baby that did not sleep, a C-section scar that was not healing well, and a whole lot of other anatomical damage that nobody ever tells you about before you have a baby.
So, between floundering through breastfeeding and snagging 15-minute increments of sleep where I could, I finally picked up My Brilliant Friend. A series of novels about a lifelong friendship between two girls, and the complexity of women’s lives, seemed like just the thing I needed to feel a little more sane and a little less alone. (Plus, like I said, Ferrante’s novels are heavy. There was something comforting about the weight of them in my hands, or resting on my loose-skinned belly — like they were holding me in place until things got better.)
What I got was not at all what I expected. Ferrante’s novels are as thorough, thoughtful, complex, and comprehensive as everyone says they are. Her main characters — Lila and Lenù, who readers follow from the time they’re 6-years-old until they’re in their sixties — are every bit as sympathetic and relatable as I had hoped. But I also discovered a surprising amount of suspense, plot twists, and jaw-dropping intrigue. And, if you’re into crime dramas or political thrillers, there’s definitely a bit of that as well.
They are constantly building their lives, only to tear them down, set them aflame, build again.
Just when you think you have Lila or Lenù figured out, they do something completely out of character. Just when you think they’ve made a decision that will surely define the rest of their lives, they’ll throw a curveball so quick you’ll risk whiplash. When you think they’ve reached the pinnacle of their daring, they up the ante. When you think they’ve become resigned to their fate, think again. They are constantly building their lives, only to tear them down, set them aflame, build again. Their fears are not what one would expect — the dangers of poverty, domestic violence, the corruption of their neighborhood, the restrictions of their gender — but rather the danger of simply standing still, being passive, following the rules, letting life wash over you.
The Neapolitan Novels were exactly what I needed when, newly 30-years-old and a new mother, it felt like I’d made a decision that had ruined my life thoroughly and forever. Few books I’ve read have explored the specific intimacies of women's entire lives like My Brilliant Friend — and Ferrante’s writing reminded me that I too can burn and build, surprise and dare; that now is not forever, but just another plot twist.
If you're picking up My Brilliant Friend for the first time: Seriously, be in it for the long haul. There will be moments when you’re going to want to stay up all night reading, and there will be moments when you need to put the books aside to digest everything you’ve just read. Give in to both impulses! Oh, and don’t get too stressed out if you don’t totally understand the history of Italian politics.
And if this book converts you into a member of the Cult of Ferrante: You’re in good company! It’s called Ferrante Fever for a reason. Take comfort in the fact that the Neapolitan Novels are the kind of books that will speak to you in different ways, throughout your life. Hang on to them, because as you grow and evolve as a reader and a human, Lila and Lenù will grow and evolve with you.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.