A new Elena Ferrante book! I’ve just finished watching Season 2 of the television series ‘My Brilliant Friend’, which reminded me just why I loved the Neapolitan Quartet so much. Having snaffled this new one off the library shelves, I held off reading it until I finished the television show, fearing that I might become confused between the two. It was a good decision. Much as I love Elena Ferrante, there are many – possibly rather too many – similarities between the Neapolitan Quartet and this new book.
Giovanna is an only child, living in one of the upper class suburbs above Naples, the daughter of two teachers. At the age of twelve, and in trouble because of her poor grades and attitude at school, she overhears her father complaining that “she’s getting the face of Vittoria”. Vittoria is her father’s estranged sister, who still lives in the industrial area of Naples, down in the valley below, from which her father had escaped. Hurt and defiant, she decides to seek out this aunt, whom she barely knows, as a way of resisting her parents and finding her own identity.
She learns that the definitive break between her father and her aunt occurred over Vittoria’s affair with a married man, Enzo, who later died leaving his wife Margherita, and three children Tonino, Guiliana and Corrado. Both Vittoria and Margherita mourned the same man, and created an odd alliance where Vittoria was known as ‘Aunt Vittoria’ to Enzo’s children. In developing her relationship with her aunt, Giovanna is drawn into this unusual family circle and their friends as well.
At the same time, her own small family splinters as her father leaves her mother to move in with Costanza, the wife of a former colleage and close family friend. Giovanna in effect inherits two step-sisters, Ida and Angela, with whom she was already close.
As with the Neapolitan Quartet books, Ferrante is so good at capturing adolescent female friendships, and the physical awkwardness and fervour of changing bodies. As with My Brilliant Friend, there is a friendship that shifts between intimacy and betrayal; there is an intelligent young girl who drifts away from and later embraces her intellectual aptitude; there is an academic male over whom the main character and her friend compete; there is fascination coupled with revulsion against men, their testosterone-driven sexuality and their power; and again there is the industrial area of Naples (now seared in my mind by the television series, and completely different from how I pictured it when I was reading the original Neapolitan books).
There is an element of fairy tale here too, in the form of a family bracelet with a provenance that reflects the evasions and untruths that Giovanna learns all adults generate. So too, Giovanna, as a seventeen year old, learns to lie and betray as she steps into her own adult world, replicating many of the entanglements that her own family members perpetrated before her.
The ending surprised me – why did she do that? – and I wonder if this is not the first book in another quartet. Does it matter if this book is so similar to the other books for which Ferrante has become so well-known?After all, Jane Austen mined similar characters and social settings for many of her books. Is it a stretch to link Austen and Ferrante? I don’t think so. Both are brilliant in capturing the nuance and treachery of female friendship, and the experience of feeling your way into your identity within a network of expectations. And when the next Ferrante comes out, I’ll snaffle it off the shelf too.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library