It is with a mixture of relief, admiration and sadness that I come to the end of the fourth book in the author’s series of novels about contemporary life in Naples, and Italy in general. This last volume is long, intense, full of emotion – some might say too full of too much emotion – and takes the reader on a veritable roller-coaster of events. The narrative focuses primarily on the personal – the loves, betrayals, jealousies of the main characters—as well as those of the many incidental characters. But it also refers to the general, political and social situation in Italy as a whole. All this sometimes leaves the reader catching her breath, or gasping in surprise, at the wealth of detail, intensity of intimate emotions, and intellectual honesty with which every scene is depicted.
In addition, the writer (and presumably also the translator, Ann Goldstein) writes in an admirably articulate way. This could, if one were critical, be condemned as overly wordy, and ‘succinct’ is not a word that comes to mind in describing this and the other three books in the series, but the wordiness builds up to create an intensely detailed account of the lives, loves and loathings of the myriad characters who people the world we are drawn into when reading this book. Not all the characters are equally likeable, and many, if not most, of them are flawed in one way or another, but that only adds to the sense of reality and identification that the reader experiences.
To describe the plot would make it seem banal. The main characters fall in love, get married, have children, betray – and are betrayed by – their partners and friends, almost ad infinitum. The vagaries, quirks and foibles of both adults and children are described in great detail, with insights that will raise an echo in many readers’ minds as well as occasionally causing eyebrows to be raised in surprise, shock and even dismay. The detailed accounts of pregnancy and delivery, of infancy and childhood, relations between siblings and between parents and their offspring are often startling in their brutal honesty, sometimes tender to the point of being cloying, but always ring true to form. It is, of course, the relationships between the adult characters that are the main crux of the book.The tragedy hinted at in the book’s title is as devastating and all-consuming as anything I’ve ever read, and one cannot help identifying with the mother whose child is lost, even though she is not always portrayed sympathetically.
Underlying the various individual lives are the social and political currents and events that churn through twentieth-century Italy as a whole, so that the book’s focus moves away from the tiny neighbourhood in Naples where the first books are set to a much wider canvas. Here, too, emotions are rampant and nothing that takes place, whether locally or nationally, is irrelevant to the torrent of events, emotions and ideas that pour out of this book.
But above all, at least for this particular reader, the author’s honesty and openness about the dilemmas and decisions confronting her as a writer had a particular impact. Very few writers are prepared to share with their readers the vortex of mutually contradictory considerations involved in writing about individuals and societies or to face up to the reactions, and often opprobrium, that her writing arouses in those nearest and dearest to her.
So, from many points of view, this book succeeds in creating a credible world peopled by living, breathing individuals with whom the reader can identify and in whose lives we can share. That, after all, is the purpose of fiction, and in this Elena Ferrante has undoubtedly succeeded beyond all expectations.