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Bookshelf Project 2016: #3–The Ferrante Novels

2016 February 14

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This one is a little bit of a cheat in the whole idea of the Bookshelf Project, but I started reading the Ferrante novels last summer, and finished the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, just after the new year. I couldn’t exactly put the last book in the series on hold for the rest of the year, so I went out and bought it. Technically, it’s on my bookshelf, so I think it counts.

Like so many, I fell victim to “Ferrante Fever”  shortly after I began reading the quartet of novels last year. Admittedly, the novels are in my wheelhouse–a story of a friendship between two women that spans the last half of the twentieth century and chronicles ambition, family, home, love, abuse, motherhood, death, separation, politics, class, and violence. Elena Greco is the narrator telling the story of her life and the myriad ways in intertwines with her childhood best friend, Lina Cerullo. Both women grow up in a poor and violent neighborhood in Naples, Italy, in the decade after the devastation of World War II and before the bloody political unrest of the 60s and 70s.

Though each book is thick and begins with a sort of legend to all of the characters, that’s where the resemblance to other popular novel series ends. There are no dragons, no magic, no hero’s quest. And yet, this quartet of novels has a fan base nearly as passionate as the followers of Tolkien or Martin. What is it about these books?

Even after having read all of them, I’m not sure I can say what has captured our attention and our imaginations. They are dense books of realism and complicated politics. Most of the characters are not what you would call “likable” in any kind of traditional way. And yet. There’s something compelling in following along as they make mistakes (again and again) and treat one another terribly and surrender to the chaotic wheel of time and aging. We are not rooting for them–not exactly. It’s more complicated than that. It’s almost like a knowing, the kind of connection to characters that can only come after thousands of pages.

It felt fitting that I finished the last book, The Story of the Lost Child, yesterday, Galentine’s Day--a day to celebrate the power of female friendship. Elena & Lina’s friendship is anything but idyllic, but their bond is so strong, so complicated, that it rivals and outlasts all of their romantic entanglements, even through their periods of silence and distrust. They share the travails of failed marriages, childhood, thwarted ambition, loving the same man, pregnancy, and motherhood. They watch their parents, their neighbors, and their friends age and die. They struggle to understand one another, because though they’ve shared so many of the same experiences, they are remarkably different women who ultimately have vastly different viewpoints and futures.

Reading these books felt like a truly unique reading experience for me. It involves something of a time and emotional investment, which makes the books more meaningful. There are dense plot points and sometimes the characters’ names all sound the same and you can’t remember who slept with who or who was so and so’s sister, but reading these books never feels like work. They are, in many ways, what real life looks like.

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