I finished reading this series a few days ago but I felt like I need to put this down into writing, both to process and to let it go.
This the blurb for the novel series from Goodreads. You can read other rave reviews there; it got 4.5 stars out of 5!
“Nothing quite like this has ever been published before,” proclaimed The Guardian about the Neapolitan novels in 2014.
Against the backdrop of a Naples that is as seductive as it is perilous and a world undergoing epochal change, Elena Ferrante tells the story of a sixty-year friendship between the brilliant and bookish Elena and the fiery, rebellious Lila with unmatched honesty and brilliance.
The four books in this novel cycle constitute a long, remarkable story, one that Vogue described as “gutsy and compulsively readable,” which readers will return to again and again, and each return will bring with it new revelations.
Here’s my personal take on the book:
This was a difficult series of novels to read, not because of the prose, but because I get emotionally tired of all the characters. The book made me so sure of how bleak and horrible are the world and the people in it. The characters were not villainous in terms of your quintessential antagonist stepmother evil witch queen, but they were just portrayed in the most selfish and self-absorbed way that you either pity the narrator or pity another character who got the brunt of the selfishness. And then you lose that pity because that character projected it on another character. Or the selfish character became the victim to another character.
Such is life.
The book is beautifully written. Its vivid description of the geographical, socio-political and historical setting made someone who knows nothing about Italy (like me!) feel at ease in reading. I didn’t feel incredibly lost amidst the political or social setting, mainly because the narrator didn’t divulge much on it other than to set the stage for the various interpersonal scenarios that happen around socio-political discussions. There were no excessive allusion to Italian politics but there was enough to make you understand where certain characters stand in relation to politics, social movements and their social statuses. The narrator also focused a lot on explaining her reactions as well as her assumptions of why other characters reacted or acted a certain way.
Throughout the story, Elena (the narrator) was obsessed with Lila, her childhood bestfriend, and Nino, her
dream fuckboi childhood love. The obsession creeped me out, especially the one towards her bestfriend. It’s an obvious love/hate relationship but you get the feeling that Elena hated Lila the most when things were going great for Lila. And when things went bad for Lila, Elena’s love intensified and she desperately wanted to help Lila but kept pointing out that she didn’t want Lila to consume her. Lila, throughout the story and in the narrator’s voice and views, seemed a harsh and unfeeling woman. I felt like I should hate her but then immediately the narrator would chastise me for feeling any hatred towards Lila.
You know what? It felt like the narrator was very skilled at gaslighting. Her truths wavered, especially when it comes to Lila. By the end of the story, I felt like Elena was the only person who didn’t really know Lila and Lila, after all those years, has accepted that Elena only wanted to see Lila as how she saw Lila since childhood, as how she wanted to see Lila forevermore. By the end of the story, I wondered about Elena more than about Lila or Nino.
Nino, I have to say, was just your average softboi fuckboi. He loved women, he respected them, he wanted them. He’d say anything to make a woman feel like she was the most amazing woman he knew and it’s the truth because whenever he’s alone with her, she was the ONLY woman in the world… as far as that moment lasted. He’s brilliant, clever, charming and he used this to make himself feel important. He needed brilliant, clever, charming women to adore him so that he could rise higher and feel validated. He was your classic Narcissistic Woke Male.
The interesting thing is that, while reading the book, you will pity Elena for what Nino did to her. You will pity Elena for what Lila did to her. But there are instances where Elena outed herself as being as conniving as Nino; she married up but she disrespected her husband and put all the blame on him when she stopped writing and her fame receded, she hated her mother but enjoyed it when her mother was weak and needed her and finally acknowledged her as a daughter that brought her pride, she patronised everybody in the neighbourhood and even cut ties with her family as being beneath her social status, she desired to be seen as brilliant, clever, charming and perfect and her whole career was to sustain this image, she used Lila’s ideas and never really credited her but she got angry the moment Lila used her writer’s fame to help the neighbourhood.
By the end of the story, Elena revealed that a very crucial scene in her childhood memories that she claimed to have propelled her into the everlasting competition and obsession with Lila was not as she remembered. That scene, as I read it, set the character of Lila so strongly in my mind as an unfeeling person and Elena continuously alluded to that scene as a hint of who Lila is. I don’t want to put big spoilers here but imagine holding a scene as the ultimate truth to the whole narrative, the scene that justifies all your hatred for a character… and then finding out it might not have happened as how Elena the narrator told it.
Oh. My. God.
I know fiction is fiction but, guys… it felt like I found out I was gaslighted through 4 books.
Which is why I am convinced that Elena was writing through a perspective of a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Everybody did something bad towards her. Everybody was to be blamed (but not explicitly, just subtly). You should pity her, even though she’s obviously the one who was well off in the story. Her reactions were always self-centred and she didn’t empathise with the other people as much as she wanted to believe that she knew them well. Nope. Time and time again, characters popped up to call out her selfishness but she painted it as a victim-blaming scene somehow.
It’s a book that calls for some self-reflection because all stories told in the narrators voice tends to carry you along that tone. It’s just very emotionally triggering for me to try to relate to the actions, reactions and reflections that the narrator went through.
Anyway, this has been my personal take on this series. Purely subjective opinion.