Perhaps you’ve heard of the four-book series known as the Neapolitan Novels, published in English from 2012-2015, under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In one of the interviews this elusive author has given, she’s said that she intended the series to read as a single novel. It tells the story of the narrator Elena (Lenù) Greco’s relationship with her friend from childhood, Rafaella (Lila) Cerullo. It’s a complicated relationship. The first installment offers us their childhood and adolescence, as well as a hook from the present day of old age to justify the need to tell this particular story.
In the prologue, “Eliminating All the Traces,” we learn that our first-person narrator is writing this story after she gets a phone call from Rino, her friend Lila’s son, who tells her that Lila had disappeared. Elena recalls when Lila long ago expressed a desire to not just disappear, but erase any trace of her existence; she realizes Lila has disappeared on purpose. Angry, Elena starts writing down everything she remembers of her.
We start with childhood, “The Story of Don Achille.” Elena knew Lila for several years in their relatively impoverished and violent Naples neighborhood before they became friends; Lila was a troublemaker in school who then turned out to already know how to read and write. One day, when they finally play with their dolls together, Lila throws Elena’s down into a dark cellar they’re scared of; Elena, who copies Lila in all things despite being scared, follows suit with Lila’s doll, but when they go down to look they can’t find them, and Lila claims that Don Achille, an ogre-like man in the neighborhood whom everyone is terrified of, took them. In the meantime, Elena receives a proposal of marriage from Nino Sarratore, whom she likes but rejects in her depression over her lost doll. Lila and Elena then go to Don Achille’s door, Lila taking Elena’s hand on the way, the gesture that changes everything between them forever. Don Achille gives them money for new dolls, which they end up buying the novel Little Women with, harboring the dream that they’ll become rich writing novels. The two are competitive in school, though Lila’s better, but then Lila’s parents don’t let her advance to middle school, while Elena’s, despite reservations, do. When Lila pesters her father about letting her go, he throws her out a window, breaking her arm. Elena and Lila are friends with Carmela Peluso, and are at her house when her father, a degenerate gambler who used to have a carpenter shop that Don Achille apparently turned into a grocery, is arrested for murdering Don Achille.
At this point we transition to adolescence, “The Story of the Shoes.” We begin with Lila’s “dissolving margins” episode during New Year’s 1958—during which she momentarily sees physical boundaries as permeable, including those between people—then circle back to earlier, when Elena goes to middle school and Lila starts to work in the shoe shop. Elena hits puberty first, but continues to be aware of Lila’s influence and importance to her. She finds out Lila is secretly reading and is angry Lila will only talk to her about shoes. Lila comes up with a plan for her family to start making shoes at the shop, and designs some, in the interest of getting rich like the Solaras. Donato Sarratore publishes a book of poems that he dedicates to Elena’s neighbor Melina, an unbalanced woman whom this dedication further unbalances; Elena is more preoccupied with the fact that someone from their neighborhood published a book. Lila helps Elena pass her Latin exams. Lila hits puberty. One day, the Solaras try to get Elena and Lila to ride in their car, and Lila pulls her shoemaker’s knife on them. Elena sees the greater city of Naples for the first time when she starts high school. Lila’s beauty causes tension in their neighborhood social group (Ada, Antonio, Pasquale, Carmela, Enzo, Elena, Lila, Rino) when she attracts attention when they leave the neighborhood. Pasquale tells Lila about fascists and the black market, the origin of the money behind Don Achille’s—now Stefano’s—grocery in the neighborhood. Nino Sarratore is at Elena’s high school, but she becomes Gino’s girlfriend. Stefano the grocer invites them for a New Year’s celebration at his house, where he promises they will set off more fireworks than the Solaras, and Lila thinks he’s making a gesture that their generation should move past the violent history between the generation above them (Don Achille et al). They all go (we return to the starting point of Lila’s dissolving margins episode, which Elena only learns about when Lila tells her about it much later), and in their firework competition, the Solaras start firing guns at them. After this episode, Lila stops going to the shoe shop, and Rino shows Fernando the shoes he and Lila made, which infuriate Fernando, who told them he didn’t want them to make shoes. Elena breaks up with Gino for laughing at Alfonso, her classmate, friend, and Stefano’s younger brother. Pasquale and Marcello Solara both make proposals to Lila; she rejects both but only tells everyone about rejecting Marcello. Elena does well in school by studying a lot but also by writing about ideas she’s discussed with Lila. When the gang goes out to the rich part of town one night at Lila’s insistence, the gulf between them and the rich becomes glaringly apparent; Rino gets in an altercation and he and Pasquale are almost beaten up badly but are rescued by the Solara brothers. Marcello comes over to Lila’s and asks Fernando to see the pair of shoes Lila made, but Lila hides them instead of retrieving them for him. At the arrangement of Maestra Oliviero, Elena goes to spend a month of her summer vacation on Ischia, where the Sarratores end up coming to stay in the same house she is. Nino tells her he proposed to her as a child because he wanted to become friends with her and Lila and was jealous of their closeness. After an extended silence, Lila sends her a letter that Elena is jealous of the fluid writing style of before she absorbs the contents that Marcello has been coming over to Lila’s house and her parents believe them to be engaged. In the house on Ischia, Donato Sarratore, Nino’s father, kisses and molests Elena, and she leaves for Naples the next day. Lila gets her to ride in Stefano’s new car with her, and then Stefano buys the shoes Lila made from the shop. He also buys the shop next door for Fernando to expand and have a shoe factory. He then asks for Lila’s hand in marriage and she accepts, happy to be rescued from Marcello Solara’s pursuit. Back at school, Elena rebuffs Nino because he reminds her of his father. Lila starts throwing around Stefano’s money and lording about like a lady. When the Solaras spread rumors about Lila giving Marcello blow jobs, Stefano and Lila decide not to respond, conduct unheard of in their neighborhood; Pasquale, Enzo and Antonio take revenge for them, beating up the Solaras and trashing their car. In an attempt to keep up with Lila, Elena becomes Antonio’s girlfriend. She helps Lila deal with her antagonistic mother- and sister-in-law during the wedding preparations. At school, she challenges a religious idea by repeating something Lila said to her, and gets in a dispute with a teacher that Nino asks her to write about for a local journal; Lila helps Elena write the piece that induces Nino to say she writes better than he does. Elena uses Antonio to make Nino jealous, letting Antonio go into debt for clothes to take her to Lila’s wedding. The newly produced Cerullo shoes, which Fernando, against Stefano’s wishes, modified somewhat from the original design, don’t sell. When Stefano tells Lila that Silvio Solara is going to be the speechmaster at their wedding, she almost calls it off until Elena manages to convince her not to, but she makes him swear Marcello won’t come to the wedding. The morning of the ceremony, Elena bathes Lila and helps her get ready. Nino turns up at the wedding because his sister is Alfonso’s date. Pasquale drives their car to the reception so violently it makes Elena realize that thanks to school she doesn’t belong among this group anymore. At the reception, Elena’s mother has figured out that she’s with Antonio and forces her to sit with her until Elena escapes and sits with Nino, pissing Antonio off. Nino tells her they decided not to publish her article about her dispute with the religion teacher, crushing Elena’s dream about rising above and escaping the neighborhood by seeing her name in print. Just as Nino leaves, the Solara brothers enter, Marcello wearing the original pair of shoes that Rino and Lila made and that Stefano bought before proposing to Lila.
Part of what reels you in with this book is that Ferrante is spinning two distinct narrative arcs—Elena’s and Lila’s—that complement and weave in and out of each other.
It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.
Hints are dropped along the way that these arcs will diverge by Elena leaving and Lila staying; we’re told in the prologue that Lila “had never left Naples in her life.” What’s fascinating about these arcs is the way they mutually impact each other; if you remove one, the other would necessarily be different; it’s precisely because of Lila that Elena is able to leave. But the prologue also offers a perhaps more subtle hint for where the direction of the entire series is headed:
To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.
In addition to their interdependency, the first book’s title, My Brilliant Friend, underscores the pair’s interchangeability when it makes an appearance in-text. Since the title is in first person and our first-person narrator is Elena, the likely initial impression of the term is that Lila is Lenù’s brilliant friend, but in the text, it’s Lila using it to refer to Lenù:
“No, don’t ever stop: I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying.”
I gave a nervous laugh, then said, “Thanks, but at a certain point school is over.”
“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
This is late in the book (chapter 57 of 62), and here we see each near the climax of their arcs, for this installment anyway: Elena’s arc is defined by her success in school, which is irrevocably influenced by Lila; Elena would not have done as well in school as she does without Lila intellectually challenging her. Lila, cut off from school early, pursues wealth, first in the form of trying to design and make shoes, then in a relationship with someone prominent in the neighborhood, Stefano the grocer; she’s described as plotting this outcome with Elena as a means of escaping Marcello. The question that keeps us going (in addition to the well-drawn characters) is will Elena and Lila be able to escape the toxic suck of their neighborhood and upbringing? How will their neighborhood’s influence and history impact their trajectories and manifest in their futures?
In their neighborhood, there’s a pervasive awareness of class, of people defined by their jobs and children defined by what their parents do:
Carmela couldn’t believe that I had refused the son of the pharmacist, and she told Lila. She, surprisingly, instead of slipping away with the air of someone saying Who cares, was interested.
But above all it was now clear that I wasn’t clever: the young son of Don Achille had passed and I hadn’t, the daughter of Spagnuolo the pastry maker had passed and I hadn’t: one had to be resigned.
There are also certain rules and standards, which are upheld and enforced by violence. As Elena explains when she refuses to ride with the Solaras:
I said no because if my father found out that I had gone in that car, even though he was a good and loving man, even though he loved me very much, he would have beat me to death, while at the same time my little brothers, Peppe and Gianni, young as they were, would feel obliged, now and in the future, to try to kill the Solara brothers.
Lila tries to escape by remaining in the neighborhood but changing its codes of conduct, to varying degrees of success—her father throwing her out the window for trying to insist on continuing school is, at the least, foreshadowing the fate of most of her most vehement efforts. Elena will try to escape literally through education, which is why an entire chapter is focused on when she gets to see the city outside the neighborhood for the first time going to high school. This pattern of school being her literal escape will continue (we see it in play when Elena gets to go to Ischia while back home Lila suffers through Marcello’s pursuit). What shifts and keeps the narrative going is Elena’s confidence in whether she’s capable of escaping or not. The climax of Lila’s wedding cements Lila in the neighborhood, possibly in a role where she might be able to change things, while on the way to the wedding reception, Elena realizes from Pasquale’s violent driving and the boys’ crude behavior that she doesn’t belong among the people who come from her neighborhood anymore. At the reception, Elena is pulled between the competing forces that define her—her school life, through the appearance of Nino, and her neighborhood life, via her date, her boyfriend Antonio. We see that Elena’s preference here is clearly Nino—and thus the life that school engenders. But then when Nino tells her her article wasn’t published, it makes her question everything—she’s not so sure she doesn’t belong among those of her neighborhood anymore. (In the beginning of book 2, when Elena begins to skip school, we’ll see the threat this publication failure poses to her trajectory.) Lila’s position is also challenged, in her case by the appearance of the Solaras at her wedding, which necessarily indicates betrayal on the part of the husband who was supposed to be the key to escaping her circumstances.
Despite the fact that they’re pursuing different life paths—education versus wealth—Elena copying or attempting to copy Lila will be a pattern that recurs in different ways throughout the series. Elena attempts to define herself both through Lila and in opposition to her, but from the first book we understand that reacting to Lila, in one way or another, is the engine of Elena’s motivation; Lila gives her life meaning and is essentially the reason Elena does everything that she does. Lila is an essential part of her identity. (As a Telegraph review of a play adaptation of the series puts it, “both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.”) In the first chapter, this pattern is set up when Elena tells us:
I immediately did the same [as Lila], although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself.
This before they’ve even spoken to each other yet.
In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway, paraphrasing novelist Michael Sharra, describes narrative arcs as “a power struggle between equal forces,” and tension rising by “shifting the power back and forth from one antagonist to the other.” A lot of the tension in Ferrante’s twin arcs is caused by Elena’s shifting relation to Lila—she’s second to her in elementary school, superior to her in middle school and her own puberty, inferior again once Lila hits puberty and Pasquale becomes interested in her, superior when she gets the opportunity to go to Ishchia, inferior again when Lila snags Stefano and money. Elena’s primary motivating force is to keep up with Lila; sometimes she lags behind, sometimes she perceives herself to be ahead. This power struggle is perfectly embodied in the chapter 57 quote from earlier when Lila orders Lenù to keep studying, telling her she’ll pay for it. Studying and school are Elena’s sources of power over Lila, and Lila attempts to control Elena’s studying, that source of power over herself, via wealth, her source of power over Elena.
The richness of the history we’re provided with as the backdrop to these events is in large part what imbues them with their emotional power and provides the novel a texture of complexity. Ferrante excels at balancing the retrospective perspective of her narrator, who already knows everything that’s happened, with the decidedly restricted perspective of a child and adolescent; these two different modes are almost like the pedals that propel the bicycle of the narrative along. As children, Elena and Lila experience the violence of their neighborhood as the state of normalcy and, based largely on what they’ve heard their parents say, are terrified of Don Achille. Take the description of Elena’s childhood perception of Don Achille taking the Pelusos’ carpenter shop and turning it into a grocery:
For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made up Don Achille. For years I saw his body—a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials—emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto.
Later, the reader will understand that Don Achille was so hated by the generation of Elena and Lila’s parents because he was a loan shark, and that he took the carpenter shop because Peluso was in debt to him that he was unable to pay back. The path that Don Achille’s dirty money takes after his death is what makes Lila’s actions relevant in a larger context. By marrying Stefano, she’s profiting from one of the neighborhood’s most violent defining forces, and she herself is aware of this fact.
So a big part of what provides this complex texture is the movement between vividly, sensorily occupying a specific moment in time, and reflecting on the implications of such moments from a future vantage:
“It seemed to me—articulated in words of today—that not only did [Lila] know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realized, with pleasure, that, as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same, and I tried and it came easily.” (emphasis mine)
In this retrospectively enhanced passage, we see that what is ultimately Elena’s interest in writing, that which will dictate her scholastic, career, and life paths, originates with Lila. We see more of Lila’s writing ability when she dramatizes in story the formative event of their childhood—the murder of Don Achille—making the murderer a woman and embellishing with another detail:
The blood spurted from his neck and hit a copper pot hanging on the wall. The copper was so shiny that the blood looked like an ink stain from which—Lila told us—dripped a wavering black line.
It is no coincidence that the comparison of the violence at this definitive moment invokes writing. The development of the symbol of the copper pot effectively dramatizes the elements of the writing process that Lila is best at, elements which we study through Elena’s eyes in the manner of a student.
The copper pot reappears in Lila’s letter to Elena when Elena’s on Ishchia, another defining moment for her and in particular her writing; we later observe the import of this moment when, during her exams, the teachers praise Elena’s fluid writing style, which she essentially learned by studying Lila’s letter. Part of what she finds so enthralling about this letter, in addition to its as-if-spoken voice, is, essentially, its symbolism.
A few evenings earlier, something had happened that had really scared [Lila]. … She had turned suddenly and realized that the big copper pot had exploded. Like that, by itself. It was hanging on the nail where it normally hung, but in the middle there was a large hole and the rim was lifted and twisted and the pot itself was all deformed, as if it could no longer maintain its appearance as a pot. Her mother had hurried in in her nightgown and had blamed her for dropping it and ruining it. But a copper pot, even if you drop it, doesn’t break and doesn’t become misshapen like that. “It’s this sort of thing,” Lila concluded, “that frightens me. More than Marcello, more than anyone. And I feel that I have to find a solution, otherwise, everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything.”
Elena is jealous of Lila’s writing ability, though her own ability to articulate what’s so great about it is no less enviable:
My gaze fell on the copper pots.
How evocative Lila’s writing was; I looked at the pots with increasing distress. I remembered that she had always liked their brilliance, when she washed them she took great care in polishing them. On them, not coincidentally, four years earlier, she had placed the blood that spurted from the neck of Don Achille when he was stabbed. On them now she had deposited that sensation of threat, the anguish over the difficult choice she had, making one of them explode like a sign, as if its shape had decided abruptly to cede. Would I know how to imagine those things without her? Would I know how to give life to every object, let it bend in unison with mine?
The answer, of course, is no.
The copper pot comes up one more time, when Elena thinks she sees Donato Sarratore in the neighborhood after his taking advantage of her on Ischia:
Whether that apparition was true or false, the sound my heart made in my chest, like a gunshot, stayed with me, and, I don’t know why, I thought of the passage in Lila’s letter about the sound that the copper pot had made when it burst. That same sound returned the next day, at the mere sight of Nino.
Elena admires Lila’s ability to connect events, to trace lines through things, to provide some sort of order in the chaos of their world. Elena does the same after reading Lila’s letter, thinking about the period she attaches herself to Stefano’s brother Alfonso during Lila’s engagement:
…it seemed to me right that the duty had fallen to two Carraccis, Stefano and him, to protect, if in different forms, Lila and me from the blackest evil in the world, from that very evil that we had experienced for the first time going up the stairs that led to their house, when we went to retrieve the dolls that their father had stolen.
Thus ends chapter 34. Then chapter 35 begins:
I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.
Elena has two parallel plots of her own playing out, one with Lila and one with Nino, each contributing to a kind of a French braid if the central thread is her school trajectory. While the Lila thread is more prominent in the first book, the Nino thread will gain increasing traction. In the first book, his major plot points are: he makes Elena a proposal of future marriage when they’re children; he’s almost killed when his family moves out of the neighborhood after the melee with Melina; they end up in high school together; they end up on Ischia together—at which point he tells her he proposed as a child not just because he liked her but because he liked her and Lila; his father molests her and so she rebuffs him when they return to school after Ischia; he asks her to write the article about the dispute with the religion teacher, offering her a chance to see her name in print and thereby escape the grip she imagines the neighborhood holds on her; he turns up at the wedding, telling her the article was not published, crushing her dream.
Part of what the retrospective perspective enables Ferrante to do is jump to different points in time. She will repeatedly manipulate chronologies to increase tension, as is apparent from the prologue told from the present day. Then when childhood starts, the structure of the order we get events in resembles a slingshot of sorts: we start with the defining moment, going up the stairs together to Don Achille’s, then pull back to when Elena first met Lila in school, then pull back further to their playing with their dolls together without actually speaking, then to Elena helping Lila in the rock fight that started because of the school competition (still without speaking), then meet back up to the stairs moment and go from there, though still with some little jumps back and forth in time here and there. Writers who are afraid of exposition could take a page from Ferrante, who loves to offer a general (while engaging and vivid) description of a time period then tell you that two different important episodes occurred then, and here are the scenes of what they were. We are not simply shown Elena’s actions and left to interpret them for ourselves; rather, frequently, motivations are elucidated:
Why do you behave like that, the father isn’t the son, the son isn’t the father, behave as Stefano did with the Pelusos. But I couldn’t. As soon as I imagined kissing him, I felt the mouth of Donato, and a wave of pleasure and revulsion mixed father and son into a single person.
The question of whether fathers are like sons, referenced most overtly with the pairings of Don Achille and his son Stefano and Donato Saratorre and his son Nino, is one that the series will continue to explore as Elena continues to waver over it. It’s also symbolic of the larger question of how much their generation will resemble that of their parents. Lila supposedly marries Stefano thinking that he’s not like Don Achille, while Elena is hindered from getting with Nino by her inability to separate him from his father.
In addition to the complex sequencing of her scenes, the structure of Ferrante’s sentences also deserves mention. So many imbedded clauses! There are many qualifiers for sentences that are what Annie Proulx called “architectural marvels” when she read here in Houston this past January. The retrospective perspective seems to be part of what enables her to pack so much into a single moment. Just look at all the commas, and feel the rhythm they supply:
Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself.