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Neapolitan Quartet By Elena Ferrante

By Tanvi Rastogi @tanviidotcom
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The Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante are a series of four books about the lifelong friendship between two women, and when I read them I find that I never want to stop.Childhood joy and teenaged terror evolve into adult yearning and cultural calamity, and the great ambitions and dark sins of the past linger on eternal. The name Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and whoever she really is, she has written the greatest book series of the 2010s, looking back at the century just past with sorrow, fury, a twisted sense of humor, and an addictively expansive eye for detail.

My Brilliant Friend #1

Description: The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Review: My Brilliant Friend is not the sort of book I would normally pick up. But self-isolation has me trying a lot of things I never thought I would. One of the things that amazed me the most about this book was the plot. It was the most natural, organic thing I’ve ever read. She started telling it and kept on doing it without pauses for literary reflections or metaphors, or for pretty much anything that might send the “oh right, this is fiction,” signal to your brain. She let the damn thing be and run its course without interfering. Ferrante allows her characters a kind of full, honest emotional range of expression that I’ve rarely seen in books about children and teenagers. She conveys the pettiness and center-of-the-universe feeling that characterizes childhood without ever quite making you detach from or become disgusted with the characters involved. The power of it isn’t in the individual sentence, which I guarantee you will be perfectly ordinary, but a string of sentences put together in just the right order.
My Brilliant Friend ends with Lila seeming to give into the inevitable: marriage at the age of sixteen. But recall that this is a story of power. And this story has only just begun.

The Story of a New Name #2

Description: In The Story of a New Name, Lila has recently married and made her entrée into the family business; Elena, meanwhile, continues her studies and her exploration of the world beyond the neighborhood that she so often finds stifling. Love, jealousy, family, freedom, commitment, and above all friendship: these are signs under which both women live out this phase in their stories. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila, and the pressure to excel is at times too much for Elena. Yet the two young women share a complex and evolving bond that is central to their emotional lives and is a source of strength in the face of life's challenges.Review: This installment for me anyway, exceeded the first book in originality and plot line. I found it moving and a very quick read despite its nearly 500 page length. The second volume of this series focuses on the girls’ late adolescence and post-adolescence, the years that for most of us would be covered by late high school, college and your first post-college job. As with the first novel, the pages of the novel are covered over with a powerful atmosphere that burns right through the pages.
We pick up the lives of Lila and Elena in the 60s after Lila's marriage to Stefano and during Elena's studies in high school and at university in Pisa. The voices of women in a man’s world are so seldom heard without interference or distortion. While that may not be true today, it was certainly true in 1960’s Italy, and to have even a glimpse behind the veil is something precious.
Every action naturally folds into the next; the continuity is superb. I found myself slowing down to take in the richness. That's the paradox Ferrante incites in readers: between wanting to gallop through the stunning tale and slowing down to take in the beauty of its structure and language.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay #3

Description: In this third Neapolitan novel, Elena and Lila, the two girls whom readers first met in My Brilliant Friend, have become women. Lila married at sixteen and has a young son; she has left her abusive husband and now works as a common laborer. Elena has left the neighborhood, earned her college degree, and published a successful novel, all of which have opened the doors to a world of learned interlocutors and richly furnished salons. Both women have pushed against the walls of a prison that would have seen them living a life of misery, ignorance, and submission. They are afloat on the great sea of opportunities that opened up during the nineteen-seventies. Yet they are still very much bound to each other by a strong, unbreakable bond.
Review: By the time I reached this book I had grown increasingly attached to the two main characters, Elena and Lila. These women are so well-drawn and seem so real that I was anxious about what will happen to them. The story covers them from their 20s and into their 30s, and both women experienced significant changes in their careers and families, especially as the political climate of Italy grew more tense and violent. Their friendship is repeatedly tested.
What I especially liked about this third novel was Elena's foray into feminism and politics as she searched for ways to be involved and for subjects to write about. Through her experiences, we get a crash course in the riots and protests that occurred in the 1960s and '70s as communists fought fascists, and everywhere our heroines turned, they risked violence, either on the street or at home.
Ferrante manages to deliver yet another subtle, riveting masterpiece, which leaves the reader hungry for more. This volume also ends on a cliffhanger.

The Story of the Lost Child #4

DescriptionBoth women once fought to escape the neighborhood in which they grew up—a prison of conformity, violence, and inviolable taboos. Elena married, moved to Florence, started a family, and published several well-received books. In this final book, she has returned to Naples. Lila, on the other hand, never succeeded in freeing herself from the city of her birth. She has become a successful entrepreneur, but her success draws her into closer proximity with the nepotism, chauvinism, and criminal violence that infect her neighborhood. Proximity to the world she has always rejected only brings her role as its unacknowledged leader into relief. For Lila is unstoppable, unmanageable, unforgettable!ReviewIn The Story of the Lost Child, Elena has achieved success as a writer and struggles to raise her three daughters. She has an ambivalent relationship to motherhood: she loves her children but she loves her career as well. She worries, sometimes, that she gives more of herself to her work than to her children. Her struggle is a modern one although marked by a past in which there was less support for a mother giving herself to a career at least as much as to her children. But Elena's ability to put other commitments ahead of motherhood (not only her career, but her relationships as well) is interestingly, and unsentimentally, depicted. There is a terrible sense of loss once you reach the last line of the last volume of Ferrante's saga, her writing is so addictive. The friendship between Lila and Elena is one of the most complicated and vivid relationships I have ever read. It remains vital right up to the end.

In the end ...

What Ferrante has done with this series is remarkable for several reasons. First, she has created an incredible story of female friendship, filled with every human emotion, including jealousy, rage, fear, and respect. As I finished reading these books, I wondered why there aren't more novels about female friendship? These novels are extraordinary for the choices the women make as a way to try and escape poverty: Elena hopes that schooling and moving away will better her life, but Lila is forced to leave school and instead tries marriage, which didn't work out as well as planned. Ferrante writes with sparkling erudition about everyday struggles — to be a woman, to be poor, to yearn for someone who yearns for another. Lila and Lenú separate and reunite, finding each other in dire circumstances or delirious joy.
I strongly recommend the entire series. It would be best to start with the first book and read the series in order. Ferrante weaves an intricate web and every thread connects to every other.

Outfit: Continuing my love for shorts this summer.

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Neapolitan Quartet By Elena Ferrante

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