by Angelina Eimannsberger
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels–My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015)–have created hype among American readers since Europa editions made them available in English translation. The story of Elena, the narrator, and her friend Lila begins when they are young girls in a relatively poor, violent, mafia ridden neighborhood of Naples. Elena makes a career as a writer and an intellectual, living in wealthy towns in Italy and temporarily marrying into a rich scholarly family. After her divorce, she and her daughters come back to Naples, and live in the same house as Lila. Throughout, Elena’s career keeps soaring to new heights but her private life keeps refiguring. Her friend Lila, also, pursues a career, parenthood and a relationship. However, while being the titular brilliant friend of the first novel, Lila working-class career stays in Naples: she begins by designing shoes and ends being a hands-on computer expert when IT just begins to hit Italy.
Ferrante has had a wild life in translation, and her mysterious identity and its violent reveal have further increased public interest in her. Any New York bookstore you walk into, you’ll find her beautiful four novels and often some of her other work prominently displayed (our cover picture comes from lovely Book Culture on 112 Street). What does Ferrante do that fascinates her readers so intensely, and especially American women? What sets her apart from the countless people writing about girls that grow up, women that navigate their lives, careers, and relationships? Why do we feel compelled to read this Italian story, very locally rooted in Naples, that spans from the 1950s to the 2000s, in today’s–Trump’s–America?
While Ferrante offers a high level of language, observation, and beauty, what lifts her above is how she structures the plot in each of the novels, and the entire arch of the four novels in general, to focus on women and their lives. Instead of using a coming-of-age or marriage plot, Ferrante creates a ‘friendship plot’ that leads us through the lives of Elena and Lila. We’re happily mired in personal details and private thoughts and feelings, but there’s no promise of redemption or “happily ever after” in spite of intense relationships and marriages.
To highlight what I mean by ‘friendship plot,’ I turn to its anti-type: the marriage plot, employed by Victorian fiction and Hollywood Romantic Comedy alike. It is a heteronormative patriarchal story telling device that structures a novel or a movie from the meeting of a man and a woman to their eventual marriage. In those stories, tension is built by obstacles and the scene set by friends, family, and often atmospheric geographic background. But the ultimate goal–marriage of man and woman–is secured and never doubted as the best possible outcome for the protagonists. This is staid storytelling that remains widely popular today. Jane Austen and Nora Ephron are some of the master practitioners of this genre. Even though they feature female protagonists, stories stuck in the marriage plot seem like they might even fail to pass the Bechdel Test.
Conversely, friendship between two women is the focus and main plot guidance in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. This fresh type of plot and focus, then, might be the crucial reason why her work has been so successful with American women. The narrator and her best friend–and the dynamic between them–drives these novels. Men, such as Nino, come and go, but we get to stay with the women, their friendship, and a real literary experience. Their children are important parts of the story, too, but because of the length of the novels even they come and go–spoiler alert–positively in Elena’s case, whose daughters move out when they attend university, and negatively in Lila’s case, whose daughter disappears one Sunday. The only constant, the explicit reason Elena the narrator (but maybe also Elena, the pseudonym of the author) tells the story is the bond between the women.
Maybe we read her with so much thirst in Trump’s America because we need so urgently to hear about women who make their life in the face of blatant, brutal misogyny and violence. There is no telos for Elena and Lila, only the beauty and the confusion of creating lives for themselves that are fulfilling and resistant to the impact of other people. They stand together against those who wish them harm, from the Solaras brothers and their violent economic domination of the neighborhood to the many men that pass through Elena’s and Lila’s lives and leave their mark. Elena tells us the story as an old woman, taking stock of her life, looking back, understanding what has happened. With her as our guide, we are interested in the mundane details of her life, the private and the personal, and we seek to understand her as her own person, not as a raw identity that needs to reach one specific goal, such as marriage, in order to be complete and done.
Elena is not a happy heroine, but a powerful one.