This novel, the first of a quartet, has become an international bestseller and has been widely praised in literary circles. So I was overjoyed when I was able to pick up a copy someone had discarded at one of the airports I visited recently. I found it a wee bit difficult to get into at first, but once I had overcome that initial barrier I found myself entranced by the account of the friendship between two girls, Elena (Lenu) and Lila, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of post-war Naples. The book starts with their childhood, when they both still played with dolls, continues with their teenage years and adolescent agonies, and ends with the wedding of one of them, though still a teenager.
The author manages to describe the feelings and experiences of those childhood years, with the close but fluctuating relationship between the two girls, as well as between them and the people around them, in a vivid and engaging way. The writing style does not always read smoothly, and at times there are too many jerky stops and starts in the narrative flow for my taste, but the intensity of the emotions and events described help the reader to overcome any reluctance he or she might have to continue reading.
The first few pages of the book provide an index of the various families who comprise the main characters of the neighbourhood and the book, and I found this very helpful, as the Italian names and surnames are sometimes difficult to differentiate and thus to imagine the characters. After all, when half the boys are called Gino, Nino, and Rino, that does not help the reader to distinguish between them.
As I read I found myself torn between identification with the two girls, whose friendship reminded me of my own childhood friend and neighbour, on the one hand, and revulsion from the violence endemic in the society in which Lenu and Lila grew up, on the other. This violence was both physical and verbal, whether between husband and wife, parents and children, neighbours—both men and women—and above all between the boys in the neighbourhood. This may be something that is more characteristic of the mediterranean temperament than of the British society in which I grew up (though I know that even English boys fight), but Elena Ferrante’s protagonists accept it as an inevitable part of life.
All in all, I enjoyed reading this book and am happy to recommend it to others for the insights it gives into the way of life and mental processes of children and adolescents everywhere, as well as in the specific society it describes. In a way, it is an insider’s anthropological study of a society that seems almost exotic to the contemporary Western observer and somewhat removed from everyday life as we know it. I’m looking forward to reading the other volumes in the series.
The book has now been made into a TV series, which I have managed to watch. For artistic reasons, although the producers are American, the dialogue is all in Italian, making it necessary for non-Italian viewers to read the subtitles. As someone who likes to watch TV in bed this makes life rather difficult for me, but it’s worth the effort to see the characters being brought to life in a sensitive and convincing way.