Here it is, one of the biggest hits of the last few years. I was extremely iffy about it for quite a long time, before giving the HBO series a go. And since I love childhood friendships’ portraits, I loved it. As soon as the first season was over, I got myself a copy (in Italian, e come no?) of the Elena Ferrante’s novel and tucked in. And boy oh boy it did not disappoint.
What is it about?
This is the story of Elena (Lenuccia, Lenu’) e Rafaella (Lila). They are both from a poor neighbourhood in Naples and they become very close when they are in elementary school. They have very different personalities: Lenu’ is more the “straight As” type, while Lila, albeit being as smart as Lenu’, is a bit more of a “troublemaker”. We follow their lives and the very differing paths they take starting from this first novel, which is the one that I loved the most, retelling a very different time in Italy, during which it was already a miracle for a young, poor, girl, to go to secondary school. A time during which streets were dusty and everyone quite poor and angry and Italian was not the first, but the second language.
What makes it good?
Even after watching the series, which was so well done and so well cast, I marveled at this book. Once again, it is a first person story, from Lenu’s point of view, which makes perfect sense considering the late developments which I am not going to spoil for you. Lenu’ clearly is writing from the vantage point of old age, but still she describes her youth with so much colour, and so vividly. There are plenty of interesting characters who come and go and who bring so much to the narration: from Lenu’s mother, the image of the hard wife, grown in difficult times and very much different to the modern concept of loving motherhood and yet, in the end, so maternal and full of love; to the neighbourhood’s families, the Peluso (the “commies”), the Scanno (the fruit sellers), the Carracci (the new rich), the Sarratore (so pervy under the nice surface). The coming-of-age feeling is also there, lived through mainly Lenu’, who is a much quieter and “normal” character than Lila. It is very easy to imagine a teenager react in the way Lenu’ reacts to plenty of the stuff that happens in the novel. Both Lila and Lenu’ are far from being perfect characters, and that’s what makes them more human, more real, and more believable. That’s what makes you want to read the end of the story, even through plenty of disturbing or upsetting moments. This is not a very cheerful ride, in case you are looking for escapism from these very unsettled times, and yet there are moments of joy, and of laughter, even if they are few and far between in a sea of struggle.
Elena Ferrante, whoever they might be, are such a gifter writer. The prose is so light and yet full of description, and feeling. I can imagine without a problem an older Lenu’ writing these lines, with some dry comments on her own life seeping through the narration, and yet everything is coloured by her (sometimes difficult to see) passion. Lenu’ is a very self-deprecating character and sometimes you want to hold her by the shoulders and shake her a bit so that she can recognize that she is not that bad, after all. Every page is a joy to read, even if, as I said, the actual subject matter is not always pleasant to read. But her writing is so compelling that even faced with some upsetting events, you are bound to keep reading, and reading.
Despite my initial mistrust, I was completely won over by this novel and its charming and flawed characters. The fact that I think of Lila and Lenu’ (and everyone else, really) as people who actually lived and that they stayed with me long after I finished reading the whole thing tell you how exceptional this novel was. Go, grab a copy now! Or watch the series, the new one is out now if you are heathens and do not read (why are you here then, the god of books knows…)