Summer Reading: The Enthralling Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

They say that you are defined, at least in part, by the place where you grew up. The older I get and the more I observe people, the more this seems true. It took me until a decade ago to realize that I really am a “suburban” kid and am used to suburban conveniences There is also no denying how living close to wetlands on Long Island all my life has influenced me to a huge extent. My husband who grew up in the South Bronx still sports a Bronx accent and resorts to such phrases as a “sliding pond” whenever he talks about city life. Although he is perceived by most to be very quiet and nonconfrontational, just below the surface is a seething secret identity raging against those who would dare to invade his territory. Nonetheless, he is completely at home in the city.

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In any case, these thoughts have been on my mind this summer since I began reading the four-volume Neapolitan Novels: Elena Ferrante’s fictional memoir of growing up in postwar (WWII) Naples. Elena, the narrator (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym), fights tooth and nail to build a personal and professional life that will get her off the “mean streets” of Naples in the 50’s, only to realize that no matter where she goes, Naples goes with her.

Adding to the intrigue is the second, equally important character who is also her best friend since primary school: Lina. Set against the backdrop of family rivalries, executions, limited opportunities both socially and economically, their friendship thrives for a while as the two girls bond to transcend their surroundings. However, as one goes off to high school and the other doesn’t, the plot thickens. There is an ongoing love/hate relationship between them from that point on that threatens to explode at any given moment…and there are many such moments.

Talk about a good summer read! Since the first page of the first novel I have been immersed in the sights and sounds of Naples, a place I knew nothing about, as well as the neighborhood people who lived there during the several decades following WWII when this story takes place. The rivalry between the two friends is riveting and takes so many twists and turns that the outcome is impossible to predict, making it a real page turner.

My son, who is well traveled and has been to Naples, told me that I should one day go there. He said, “Naples is the real Italy and it’s rough but not to be missed.” I am probably about 100 pages from the completion of the four novels and I still have no idea how things will turn out for these two lifelong friends. I do know, however, that Naples is their shared destiny…for better or worse. And, of course, that I am now destined to visit Naples.

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23 thoughts on “Summer Reading: The Enthralling Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante”

    1. Well, this is a classic version of a chick lit book! There’s even some sex in it, but a la the 50’s, the writer leaves much to the imagination unlike today’s novels. But the story of the female friendship is archtypal (spelling?). Try it, you can always quit after the first one!

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  1. I enjoyed this piece, especially since I have dabbled in the works you reflect upon- I read My Brilliant Friend and started the Knausgaard series (put it down for now.)
    You sound like a real reader, and one who revels in the “place” of a piece of writing. I followed the link to your Knausgaard piece and while I don’t focus very much on place, but I was inspired by your description there about learning details of how people live, dress, eat… through novels. Impressive that you read these fairly dark novels through hard times. I hope you will write about Naples when you get there!

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    1. In both Knausgaard’s and Ferrante’s memoirs, the “place” is essential to the story in how it influences the development of the characters. That said, I am also deeply interested in places and the cultures that derive from them. I guess that is why I became an ESL teacher. I shoulda’ been an anthropologist!

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  2. Wow! Your post makes me want to read these books! Well done! I agree, “They say that you are defined, at least in part, by the place where you grew up.” There was a conversation yesterday that demonstrated this for me too. So true!

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    1. At first I felt that Ferrante’s novels were a bit lighter fare than Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle, which are so brooding. But in the end, I think the story of the two friends in Naples is at least equally engaging, and Naples is…..well, Naples.

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  3. Thank you soooo much for this post. I too enjoy reading about other places and the ordinary lives of people there. I will definitely be reading these books as we are planning a trip to Italy soon and having hooks to hang things on makes the trip so much more enjoyable. By the way, the photo at the top of this post is just wonderful!

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    1. Wish I could join you! And, yes, it does help to have some “hooks to hang things on” (well said), when you are visiting a place. I felt that way when my family and I visited Germany this past Christmas holiday and again, this past week, as I helped my daughter plan her trip to Ireland, a place I visited 45 years ago! In both cases, I was flooded with memories and, in each case, learned something new. Have a great trip!

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  4. I love summer reading too – the time off from teaching to take as long as you want with a book is precious. I will definitely look for these at the library! And, going to Italy is on my travel list!

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    1. These novels require a good investment of time, but they are well worth it. And, yes, it is wonderful to be able to read them at my leisure. Going to Italy is a must! I hope to get there again some day soon. It’s been 45 years since I first explored Florence and Rome on my own, and ten years since I finally got to Venice which I adored. On to Naples… and Sicily if possible!

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  5. The novels sound fascinating, about place, but also how friendship can change. I have a friend who did go on to college, but his best friend did not, and they grew apart. My friend said his was entrenched in the old high school memories, had no other nostalgic place to go in his life. When one “stays”, I wonder how that affects their views? You’ve written an intriguing post, albeit about the book, but also to ponder about our own roots.

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    1. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, that there’s less “woulda’, coulda’ shoulda’ when I have these reflective thoughts. I just kinda look at where I’ve been and what I’ve done through a long lens without judgment. I left LI when I was 20 and was “gone” for the next 5 or 6 years traveling in Europe and living in California. Then I returned, had a family and stayed. Sometimes I do wonder how my life would have been if I had stayed in California (IF that had been possible). But I didn’t…..So here I am. Had I stayed I never would have discovered Slice of Life 🙂

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  6. These novels sound like the kind of books my wife loves to read…following characters through many years. I will have to share this with her. As far as Naples…go for it. I would love to read your posts about your trip.

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  7. Would it be ok to ask from what you are convalescing? Yes, “layered” is a good way to describe this writing. But I am wondering if a guy would enjoy the series as much as a woman, only because it’s largely about a female friendship. Thanks for commenting, and get well soon!

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  8. Me again! Just looked at your slide show of books you’ve been reading. Have you already read all of these…or is this a “to do” list? I’m impressed either way. May even try one or two of them myself. I like the format of the slide show; it’s a format that would seem to me to appeal to middle and high-school kids.

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  9. I’ve had these books on my TBR list for a while, and your thoughts have made me want to go to the library right now. A trip to Italy is on my bucket list for ages. Florence would be my first stop so I could climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome. Happy reading!

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  10. Run…don’t walk to the nearest ticket office. Don’t go during the summer–it’s tourist madness. Read the books and you’ll have to go to Naples as well. I’ve gone to Venice, Florence and Rome, but now I think I’m ready for the “real” Italy…Naples and Sicily!

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