A couple of years back the books section of the now much-depleted Age used to publish the independent and chain-store 10 bestsellers for the week. Month after month both lists were dominated by Elena Ferrante’s books, both in hardback and paperback versions. The Harry Potter books did the same thing, as have Andy Griffith’s scatalogical titles. What was so good about Ferrante? Now, long after the hype has subsided and after a year of sporadic reading, I’ve finished all four and now I know why they were on the best-seller lists for so long.
This is a four-part story, released at one volume each year between 2012 and 2015. Set in a poverty-stricken section of Naples in the 1950s, it is the story of a friendship between two women, Elena and Lina. Lina marries young, becomes financially successful, while Elena undertakes an academic and writing career. Told from Elena’s point of view, Lina is always smarter and more street-smart and, along with Elena, you’re never really sure whether you trust her or not. Like all long term relationships, there are periods of closeness and distance, and their fortunes ebb and flow, both emotionally and financially.
At times I found myself wondering whether anything really happened in these books. Is the whole thing just a souped-up soap opera, I wondered?
But occasionally, I’d just sit bank and think- Yep, this woman sure can write. There’s a huge scope of time encompassed in these books, and here’s Ferrante making a masterful transition between a sweeping survey of her own life, and the more minute analysis of her friend Lila’s activities
This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and the end of 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.
It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly and goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open and their contents scatter here and there… p. 336
The plotting of the series of books is masterful, clearly planned in its entirety from the opening pages of Book 1 which tie in so neatly with the closing pages of Book 4. This isn’t a saga with one book added after another once they began to sell well: no, it’s a complete whole, conceived as a unity from the start. It was always a little difficult to start each volume after a break, but about half way through each one , she’d put her foot to the metal and it was unputdownable.
And what I have enjoyed about reading a series like this is how I’m aware of where I was, as I read each book. Volume 1 I sat up in bed until about 3.00 a.m before leaving for Chile, trying to finish it before I left. Volume 2 I was reading while the room shook around me in Santiago, and I finished in Cuba. Volume 3 I read in Dad’s loungeroom, sitting beside him and Volume 4 I read on the balcony up at Marysville.
I have loved these books. They capture so well the ambiguities of a close friendship, and they mark the passing of time and the 20th century development of Naples, with the chains of past family enmities and the allure of modernity. I flipped through the advertisements for Ferrente’s other books at the back of the volume. No, I don’t want to read any more. This was just perfect, just as it is.