Praise for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy echoes around the reading world these days, and I’ll add my few claps of applause to the din. The book follows two girls, Elena Greco and Lina Cerullo, living in an up-and-coming Naples neighborhood, from early childhood through age sixteen. Lina is the fearless, fierce one who sprouts into an unintentional beauty, Elena is the glasses-wearing studious one who keeps excelling in school but realizes that she pales in comparison to Lina’s innate smarts and writing talent. Vivid descriptions of adolescent pawing and the imminent threat of violence in the neighborhood should someone’s honor be besmirched. Lina, the daughter of a cobbler, convinces her father and brother to start making their own shoes, instead of just fixing them. She helps create the first pair, painstakingly over a few years, is disturbed by the greed she’s unleashed in her brother Rino. Her fiance, Stephano, buys the pair and convinces her father to go into business with him. At the end of the book, we spot the shoes on the feet of Lina’s tormentor, Marcello, who’d been refused by Lina despite gifts such as a television, jewelry.
The book is great in its depiction of the strong bonds of friendship between Lina and Elena. Most of the book comes from Elena’s perspective, and we see how important Lina is to her, how subjects dull if Lina is uninterested, how she co-opts Lina’s passions as her own. Lina gets library cards for each of her family members and uses them to check out books for herself. At the end of the year, the library recognizes it’s most frequent patrons, awarding the top 4 prizes to the members of the Cerullo family (although it’s only Lina who does the reading). At the end of this book, we leave Elena on the cusp of breaking up with Antonio (whom she doesn’t love) so that she can chase after Nino Sarratore. There’s also a great moment of realization she has riding with her friends to Lina’s wedding reception:
It was during that journey to Via Orazio that I began to be made unhappy by my own alienness. I had grown up with those boys, I considered their behavior normal, their violent language was mine. But for six years now I had also been following daily a path that they were completely ignorant of and in the end I had confronted it brilliantly. With them I couldn’t use any of what I learned every day, I had to suppress myself, in some way diminish myself. What I was in school I was there obliged to put aside or use treacherously, to intimidate them. I asked myself what I was doing in that car. They were my friends, of course, my boyfriend was there, we were going to Lila’s wedding celebration. But that very celebration confirmed that Lila, the only person I still felt was essential even though our lives had diverged, no longer belonged to us and, without her, every intermediary between me and those youths, that car racing through the streets, was gone.
The book begins with a frantic call from Lina’s son (also Rino), reporting her missing. Lila has had issues with “dissolving margins” since a night atop a roof watching fireworks, seeing her brother as a monster instead of friend. I assume books 2, etc will dip further into her disappearing act. “Brilliant friend” is a quote from Lina about Elena although throughout the book we’re assuming it’s Elena’s reference to Lina; it comes towards the end, as oddly a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately have derived their titles from end chapters.
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein