The writer who goes by the name of Elena Ferrante has, over the past 25 years, produced seven novels. The most famous of them—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child—form a quartet. Published in rapid succession between 2011 and 2014, these novels are set in a slum neighborhood in Naples that is marked by poverty, ignorance, and violence and yet constitutes, for its inhabitants, a world whose borders none may traverse. No amount of hardscrabble life on its mean streets is sufficient to wean anyone—and I mean anyone—of loyalty to the neighborhood’s addictive brutishness. If, on occasion, one or two of its denizens manage to escape, they are (symbolically speaking) likely to lose a limb tearing free, thereby remaining as maimed as those being left behind.
The Neapolitan quartet is celebrated for the compelling way it narrates a friendship between two women, Lila and Elena, that extends over half a century. But the real protagonist of the books is, as it might be in a premodernist work of fiction, the neighborhood itself, richly evoked through a cast of supporting characters that seems somewhat archetypal. There is Pasquale, the communist; Michele, the criminal; Nino, the hustler; Elena’s avaricious sister; Lila’s lowlife brother; along with a variety of husbands, wives, children, and lovers, all crowding the page. Many of these characters are so one-dimensional it often seems as though they are members of an extended family united by a stultifying world that none can leave and where none can mature as an individual.
Then there are the two women, whose long friendship is the narrative heart of the work. As children, Elena was smart, pretty, and docile, whereas Lila was beautiful, brilliant, and fearless. When it came time to continue on to a higher level of education, it was Elena who got to go to college, while Lila was deprived of further schooling. Whereupon some psychological twist of cynical rage blossoms in Lila that makes her imagine herself committing an act of vengeance—she’ll show them, she’ll make nothing of her life—when, at the age of 16, she marries the grocer’s son, a weak and violent man, thus binding herself to the neighborhood for life.
The defiant pride with which Lila makes a virtue out of necessity impresses, even frightens, those around her. “Nothing and no one seemed to reduce her,” the grown-up Elena muses decades later. “Rather, even if over the years she became as stupid and intractable as anyone, the qualities that we had attributed to her would remain intact, maybe they would be magnified. Even when we hated her we ended by respecting her and fearing her.” In time, we will see that Lila’s strength derives from her mocking embodiment of all their unfulfilled lives.
The narrator, Elena, on the other hand, does feel reduced, even though she is the one who apparently got away. She has lived for long periods of time out in the larger world, has married, had children, become noted for her writing. Yet she remains as uncertain of herself as she was the day she went off to college. Elena returns home repeatedly because she continues to suffer horribly “in situations where approval suddenly vanished” and she “lost confidence, felt dragged down to my origins…felt I was a woman who would have been better off not opening her mouth.” Elena’s crippling insecurity is the obverse of Lila’s noisy need to intimidate. In the course of four novels neither of their failings advances nor retreats very much.