The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

One day, half listening to New Yorker “Out Loud” podcasts while doing something else, I heard Sasha Weiss, literary editor of, 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.

mom's lamp negative




11 thoughts on “The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

  1. Oh goodie! A new series. I’m going to buy the real books when I’m in Portland. Now that my eyes are better I’m enjoying again the turning of real pages. And oh – I love this little painting! Or is it a pastel? It gives such a feeling of late-in-the-day coziness. Makes me want to sit down and read.

    • Oh Yes, do get the real books. I wish I could transform books I really love into real books (after thoroughly enjoying the amazing portability of electronic reading). And that illustration is such a cheat – scrolling through old images looking for exactly what you name: “late-in-the-day coziness,” found a little watercolor and made it a negative. Seemed slightly eerie in a cozy way. And ALL I want to do this time of year is “sit down and read.” Thanks for your comment, I bet you love even the cover of “My Brilliant Friend.”

      • Well, it’s not a cheat really. Seems very clever to me, and works just right to create what darkness does. Looking forward to these books – to reading them in the time of the day when inside light replaces outside light and we feel like turning inward.

    • I’ll be so curious to see what you think. Have you ever been so far south as Naples? Oh you will have so many visuals and references to bring to this from your time in Italy. Buona lettura!

  2. Katy,   I love this piece.  I hope you and Jim are well.  I also love the art work at the bottom of this article.  Those books sounds great.  Some more to add to my list.  I haven’t succumbed to a kindle yet.  I just like the texture and feel of pages.    I never did make it north this year (either to your neck of the woods or to even Seattle).  I started a new job in June and have been glued to my desk here.  I am at Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt (Jim probably has heard of them).  I work in the environmental department and really like the attorneys I am working for.  It was a hard decision to make a move, but one that I am really glad to have made.    If you are ever in Portland, please let me know.  I would love to see you both!  I will be around for the holidays here in Portland – you are probably heading north to spend time with your grand daughter.  I love the stories you tell about her.     Take care and peace, Chris Weckel  

    • Oh thank you Cris for all your kind words and how good to hear from you! Sounds like you love your job and I am so glad! Wishing you the best of the dark, yet bright and festive season – I’ll bet your workroom is busy! xo

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