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An Amazon Best Book of September 2015: Elena Ferrante has been an under-the-radar phenomenon for a couple of years now: the pseudonymous, publicity-shunning Italian author of Days of Abandonment – one of my favorite novels of all time – and the three (until now) Neapolitan Novels is the go-to read for thoughtful, analytical women on at least two continents. But if the first three books made her a cult here, The Story of the Lost Child, the final volume of the Neapolitan books, is poised to make her a bona fide star.
Such widespread acceptance and popularity is only fitting, since the characters in the Neapolitan novels are not “fancy” women; they’re for the most part not particularly educated, rich or sophisticated. What they are, always, is full of life and self-doubt and self-consciousness and ambition and love and hate and energy and sexuality. The new book, like the others, centers around the lifelong relationship between Elena and Lina – frenemies from long before such a word existed. The Story of the Lost Child chronicles what happens when the women renew their friendship after many years of estrangement; “One morning, I woke up and thought of her without hostility for the first time in a long while,” as Elena says. Now they are beginning to face aging together.
That’s the plot here, and it is essentially the plot of all of the Neapolitan novels: how do women grow and age, together and apart, how do they relate, how do motherhood, money and men intervene? But you don’t read Ferrante for the plot; you read her for the sheer accumulation of detailed scenes and conversations, for its comings together and breakings apart, and for the way characters disappear and recur until the city in which they live becomes both a vast jungle and the original too-close small town. (Bonus: while it’s probably best to read all four of these novels in the order in which they were published, you can come to book 4 fresh and get up to speed within pages.) Along the way, you also get a glimpse into the politics of 20th century Italy and some sly understanding of the publishing world. (Elena is a published author of some success.) Reading Ferrante is, in other words, both exhausting and exhilarating. The other day, an acquaintance said she loved these books so much she felt like standing on a street corner and handing them out to every woman she sees. I know the feeling. – Sara Nelson
Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), which was made into a film directed by Roberto Faenza, Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), adapted by Mario Martone, and The Lost Daughter (Europa, 2008), soon to be a film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She is also the author of a Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (Europa, 2016) in which she recounts her experience as a novelist, and a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night (Europa, 2016). The four volumes known as the “Neapolitan quartet” (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) were published in America by Europa between 2012 and 2015. The first season of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, directed by Severio Costanzo premiered in 2018.
Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. Her translations for Europa Editions include novels by Amara Lakhous, Alessandro Piperno, and Elena Ferrante's bestselling My Brilliant Friend. She lives in New York.
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