One day, half listening to New Yorker “Out Loud” podcasts while doing something else, I heard Sasha Weiss, literary editor of newyorker.com, say that she adored “these books,” and always tried to tell people about them.
Speaking on the podcast with the translator Ann Goldstein and the writer, D.T. Max, Weiss referred to Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel cycle: “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.” Utterly fascinated with the novels, these three on the podcast struggled to describe the books – sometimes disagreeing (speculation abounds about the reclusive Ferrante’s gender – neither Goldstein nor Weiss, nor I, think she could be a man), but always agreeing on the vividness and power of Ferrante’s writing.
The novels trace the lives of two girls, Elena the narrator, and her friend Lila. The first book begins with a prologue set in the present when Lila is 66 and gone missing, but quickly shifts to the beginnings of this lifelong friendship in a hardscrabble, colorful, angry, and loving Naples neighborhood.
And now I am in the same spot as the podcast people! Wanting to say – read these stunning books, full of so much detail and life, an infectious, propelling read, unputdownable. Not just a coming of age story, but a described world to live in as the decades go by. I hurtled through the books’ pages and years, through the political turbulence of the 1960s and 70s, the evolving relationships of men and women, and above all absorbing this singular yet universal friendship.
For some, the novels parallel one’s own experiences (though plenty of men and younger women adore these books as well). And maybe this is the part Weiss grappled with, how to describe the glimpses, moments, of yourself and your friends found in both Elena and Lila. You keep reading for more, another scene or description, life with small children, the violence of a sausage factory, and sustaining moments of creativity.
The sole man on the podcast thought the narrator was full of self-loathing, but both women (and this reader) strongly disagree. Ferrante captures that way we often think and talk to ourselves, sometimes with ruthless honesty, other times with ebullient hope. And anger – anger can be fierce here – and Ferrante wields a master storyteller’s use of suspense.
Preparing myself to bid farewell to Elena and Lila, I felt such relief at the end of book three to realize there is another volume forthcoming. It’s scary to think I might have missed these books. I read on my Kindle – unaware of length – and at the end, wanted to order the “real” books to read again.