The first time I heard about the Elena Ferrante series was from my friend Nancy, at writer’s conference in chilly MInneapolis. I have a lot of friends who like to read, but I have few friends who like to read as much as I do. My friend who blogs over at In The Garden of Eva does, and my friend Nancy does. And while everyone’s literary tastes are different, I knew I could take a recommendation from Nancy seriously, and not because she’s an English Professor, but because she’s a true reader. She’s always reading something, like me, and we have traded recommendations before, and I’ve never been disappointed. These are good friends to have! I
But when I pulled up the first book I thought the cover looked terrible. Like something published in the sixties. I thought it looked vintage. The books have all come out relatively recently, though, and the last one (also with a terrible cover at least in the US release) was just released this fall. I read the first one, though, and was absolutely hooked. I quickly plowed through all three of the books that were out, and eagerly awaited the fourth, which I then quickly plowed through. And between reading the first three and the fourth I discovered that there’s quite a story behind the author too.
First, though, the books. They tell trace the lives of two women in Naples, beginning in the 50’s, and tracking all the way through to roughly present day. The women face being forced into marriage at a very young age, poverty, romance, violence, communism, childbirth, motherhood, communism and political strife, and more. Every event in their lives seems to be overshadowed by “the neighborhood.” The neighborhood becomes a dystopian community constantly overshadowed by mafiosos who secretly, and not so secretly, pull the strings of everyone around them. There is also a thread of mental illness woven throughout that is both sad and chilling. The books have a rags to riches element. There is a lot going on in these books, and its true they are purported to be more than vaguely autobiographical.
The relationship between the women is tempestuous. Its difficult. But it perseveres. It is, in fact, the one constant for the main character, despite the fact that at many times throughout the books she tries to remove it, to extricate it from her life. She never succeeds, entirely, and the books are the better for it.
Its difficult to pinpoint exactly what made these books so compelling for me. Of course, I had a friend like that, like most women do. Our friendship did not survive this way, though, and it seems to me that these women, legitimately, faced every ill and evil the 20th century had to throw at them. And the only way they survived it was through their bond. Even though they both resisted it, at times. It raises interesting questions about femininity, and the sociological construct of female relationships.
It also raises questions as the author herself is mysterious, doesn’t do publicity, and writes under an assumed name.
Though these books have taken over the international publishing world with their mystery, simplicity, and utter irresistibility, the author herself remains a mystery. I might say more about this at a later time, but an author resisting fame, in fact actively hiding from it, is intriguing. I am sure its helped propel the books to even greater notoriety, as many have written about the strange phenomenon of the author who doesn’t wish to be known. Not that she’s entirely invisible – you can read an interview with her here in Vanity Fair.
It is a beautiful series, both dark and light, complex, thought provoking, and, for me, absolutely riveting. I think it’s good for readers of historical fiction, fans of literary leaning fiction, and anyone who’s ever had a best friend. Or been interested in the mafia. Or Italy. Or…. You get my drift.
I’ve decided I’m going to rate books here for you, though I always struggle with this on Goodreads and Amazon. I almost never definitively think a book is 5 stars. And what exactly is the difference between a 2 star and a 3 star rating? So I’m going to try to come up with my own rubric. I’m going to give them bees! Because we like bees here. I’ll post the rubric below, but you can also find it on our review policy page.
0 Bees: Couldn’t get in to the book, and/or didn’t finish it.
1 Bee: I didn’t like this book — felt more like work than reading for pleasure.
2 Bees: This book had something I liked, but didn’t quite fulfill its promise. It was missing something, or, it didn’t play out the way I thought it would
3 Bees: This book was wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. I would probably not read it again, but it might suit certain readers.
4 Bees: This book was lovely.
5 Bees: I loved this book and will likely read it again. It has artistic merit.
5+ Bees, Now We’re Buzzing: A new favorite, and one I will unabashedly recommend. Its not only enjoyable, I think it has real literary and/or artistic merit.
So what does the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan Series get? A solid 5 Bees!