Somewhere in the middle of the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, I emailed my friend Beverly Lowry and asked her if she’d read the books. Beverly wrote back saying, “My life has not been the same since I read the last page of the fourth book. I even considered going immediately back to page one, book one. I was totally absorbed and in love with every word.”
Now that I’ve finished the last of the quartet I have to say that pretty much sums it up. Will I ever have a reading experience as satisfying as this one? Should I just start over and read them all again?
I’ve been carrying around the first of the four books, My Brilliant Friend, for three years now. It’s gone on countless trips with me, but every time it reached the top of my stack it got bumped down again. I have so many friends who’ve told my how essential Ferrante’s books are, how much I would love them. When Jonathan Franzen was here doing an event for Purity, someone in the audience asked him: if he could recommend just one author, who would it be? He said Ferrante. And I still didn’t pick them up. Like most of us at the bookstore, I often feel that once someone else on the staff has read a book and loved it, I don’t need to read it anymore. I feel like it’s my job always to be finding something new, something that hasn’t been recommended yet or covered by another of our booksellers. So really, the amazing part isn’t that it took me so long to read them, the amazing part is that I read them at all.
One night I was reading a book I just couldn’t go on with, and I put it down and picked up My Brilliant Friend. Once I started I couldn’t stop. All together, the four volumes add up to 1,682 pages. I read them in five weeks. I read them the way other people binge watch HBO series, the way kids read Harry Potter. All I wanted was more. I found myself poring over the quotes on the front pages, feeling a connection to every scrap of praise. A couple of my favorites:
“The Neapolitan novel cycle is an unconditional masterpiece . . . I read all the books in a state of immersion; I was totally enthralled. There was nothing else I wanted to do except follow the lives of Lila and Lenù to the end.”—Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Lowland
“Reading Ferrante reminded me of that child-like excitement when you can’t look up from the page, when your eyes seem to be popping from your head, when you think: I didn’t know books could do this!”—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
I’m late to the party, and I imagine many people reading this post are rolling their eyes, thinking, She’s just now reading Ferrante? Plenty of people are coming into the store as madly rhapsodic about these books as I am. So instead of continuing to wax on about their brilliance — we all know they’re brilliant, and now I’m finally caught up, too — I thought I might suggest some places you could turn when you’re finished. These are a handful of books in which the first person narrator is more cautious, less brilliant, less dangerous, and less beautiful than her mesmerizing best friend. None of these books are similar to the Ferrante novels, but they’re all literature of the highest order. Sometimes — very, very rarely — I wish I could teach a college course in literature again. This would be a course on female friendship that would start with the Ferrante novels and then go on to the list below. I’ve recommended some of these books before, but if you were taking the course you’d have to read them again.
Coming in at 161 pages, this would be an excellent place to go after Ferrante. The book is elegant and precise, focusing on the summer that Berie and Sils worked in a theme park. Berie was the cashier and Sils was Cinderella. Can you guess which girl is the dangerous one and which girl tells the story? Who Will Run the Frog Hospital reminds us that while endless space is a luxury, the ability to get to the heart of the matter and tell the story of a friendship from the vantage point of a single summer is high art.
Over the course of these three novels, Baba and Kate swap the narrative. It makes me wonder how Ferrante’s Lila would have told her own story if given the chance. Clearly these two characters grew up and changed alongside O’Brien. As time goes on there are fewer descriptions of the sweeping Irish countryside and a lot more consideration of the terrible binds women find themselves in due to sex. O’Brien has a way of making the reader think she’s writing a book about sleepy, small town Ireland. It’s never that. Much to my horror, I just found out The Country Girls Trilogy is out of print. Hopefully this is a publishing oversight that will be corrected immediately. While you wait for its return, content yourself with O’Brien’s brilliant new novel The Little Red Chairs, which comes out at the end of March.
Whenever I read a Margaret Atwood novel it feels like an excavation: she shows you the two girls standing in the field, but she also shows you the grass, the rocks, the dirt, the roots, the worms, and the deeper dirt and deeper rocks. She digs down and down until she has brought up every hidden and difficult thing and shown the reader all of it. The rage and longing is darker in this one. The violence between Elaine and Cordelia is real, but so is the love. Atwood doesn’t focus nearly as much on men. These girls are bound together and driven apart because of their own complex personalities. They don’t need any help from anyone.
If you read all those books and you still feel like getting one more take on female friendship, read Truth & Beauty, the book I wrote about my friend Lucy Grealy. I thought a lot about Lucy when I was reading the Neapolitan novels, and how I always felt I was the plodding ant, working hard and doing whatever was expected of me, while Lucy was the explosive and brilliant grasshopper, living her life half on fire and paying for it. I related deeply to Lenù’s constant questioning of her own success and ability in light of the true genius of her friend. As the preceding list proves, there’s a lot of that going around.
I’m usually not so focused when I write my book report, but then I usually don’t read four books by the same author in a row. In fact, I don’t think I’ve done that since my Laura Ingalls Wilder days. Then as now, it was wonderful to be pulled into another world and have such a long stay.
Friendship is always in the air at Parnassus. There are so many customers we’ve come to consider our friends, although the customers probably feel they’ve forged the deepest relationships with the shop dogs. It’s OK — we don’t mind taking a backseat to the dogs.
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Anyone else new to the Ferrante party? Read along with Ann: