When her childhood friend Lila disappears in her old age, Elena decides to write their two intertwined life stories. They both come from a working-class neighbourhood of Naples but whilst Elena goes on to study and become an author, Lila remains in the neighbourhood. This is the premise of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, made up of four tomes: My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015). The whole series is based on the two friends’ different lifestyles in spite of which they always end up together again, as a constant movement of push-and-pull in which Lina seems to have the upper hand.
To me Lila is an embodiment of Elena’s origins, her socio-economic background, and in fact, the Neapolitan working-class neighbourhood which she is desperately trying to escape from, from the youngest age. The movement of push-and-pull between the two friends is Elena’s repulsion and attraction to this neighbourhood she never calls home but always come back to.
Everyone in this neighbourhood is profoundly unhappy and envious of others’ possessions. The unhappiness is transmitted from generation to generation, an inherited burden you must carry your whole life. There is a false sense of social mobility with the Solara brothers, and Stefano Carracci at the beginning, as they have a lot of money and are able to buy new homes outside of the neighbourhood. Except that the new constructions are referred to as ‘the new neighbourhood’ because it is nothing else but a modern extension of the old one. Young people are recreating what they have always known and join the vicious circle of violence and hatred. It’s also interesting to note that Stefano loses his money, which he got from his relatively honest business (even though his father wasn’t really an honest man) because of the Solaras, and so only criminals have access to a comfortable lifestyle – when most characters of the story live in dark and insalubrious lodgings.
In fact, social mobility is just an illusion reserved to women who can fake their backgrounds with the jewels and clothes their lovers gift them. But behind the trendy makeup, they are as unhappy as all the others and they never leave the neighbourhood.
The neighbourhood is close to the city centre, but seems miles away. It feels like an enclosed space delimited by the stradone. I think it might be why it reminded me so much of where I grew up and my own family history. My mum started to have a look at our family history and since the 1780s, my family have moved in a perimeter of… 35kms. From her side, I am very much an Auvergnate peasant and everyone has lived in the same villages for generations. But when I look at the people around me, I am not sure they’ve ever been truly happy and looked back at their lives with a sense of pride and achievement. I feel harsh writing this words, but when I look back, the adults I had around me as models when I was a child were all deeply unhappy and jealous. Just like Elena, I spent hours wondering whether this was my destiny too, whether I would end up stuck in a place I hate, looking at my wealthier neighbour with envy. Just like her, I went away to study but came back and got caught in the spiral of unhappiness and anger. Finally, like her, I found it hard to leave – physically but also mentally. I’ve been in London for a few years now, but a call to my family brings me right back down to where I was before. I refuse to think about where I come from too much, to talk about it even, but exactly like Elena, I’m always brought back to it when I meet new people, especially in middle class London. But unlike her, I won’t give in to the temptation of the familiar (which I think Nino Sarratore embodies in the novel – he was born in the neighbourhood and left as a child, but Elena kept on loving him for years after that) and I will keep on carving my own path, which I hope will be happy and self-sufficient.
I loved, loved this series of books. They were everything the cover doesn’t represent: they were beautiful, complex, thoughtful, and oh so addictive. As this review might suggest they made me reflect on very personal things, and it was sometimes difficult for me to face those thoughts but it’s such a joy to read a book that challenges you on such an intimate level. I realise this is probably just the case for me, but in any case Elena’s story is excellent and relatable at points – no matter where you come from. There is also an HBO show going on, I think series 2 was released recently, I have not watched it yet so I can’t really talk about it but I would be very curious to know how they translated the books for TV!