Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels are the best book series of the decade
Elena Ferrante's majestic Neapolitan quartet begins in 2010. Elderly Elena receives word that her lifelong friend Lila has gone missing. They've known each other for more than 60 years — and we seem to experience every millisecond of those decades in the enthralling tale that follows. Childhood joy and teenaged terror evolve into adult yearning and cultural calamity, and the great ambitions and dark sins of the past linger on eternal. The name Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and whoever she really is, she has written the greatest book series of the 2010s, looking back at the century just past with sorrow, fury, a twisted sense of humor, and an addictively expansive eye for detail.
As with any literary saga, half the fun of finishing is getting to argue with fellow readers about which book is the best. Do you prefer 2012's My Brilliant Friend, which finds Lila and Lenú (as we'll always know Elena) hardscrabbling in their postwar Naples neighborhood? It could almost be the great young-adult novel of our time, and the two young girls form a fascinating union. They are best friends and confidantes; it feels at times like they are each living the other's better life. Lila is the great doer, charismatically capturing the attention of all the local boys (and in Ferrante's telling, we will come to recognize all those boys, and their families, and the children their siblings will have someday). Lenú comes off more passive and thoughtful — there's a reason she's writing this story, maybe. And yet, their young identities are also fluid and particular, so you can almost see them forming their individual personalities like waves crashing against each other.
My Brilliant Friend is still recognizable as a teen romance, with a vividly painted social backdrop and an acidically dark twist. 2013's The Story of a New Name begins where that twist ends, with a wedding night so awful that it reaches mythic status, the terrifying counterpoint to every happily romantic ending that left the man in charge. Ferrante's novels are great works of gutter philosophy, tracking the growth of political ideology from apartments into fiery streets and the halls of government. And they are also brilliantly escapist in their travelogue texture — so New Name reaches its page-turning high point when several key characters find themselves in a lusty love pentagon on the gorgeous island of Ischia.
2014's Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the most chaotic of the books, capturing with pinpoint accuracy the frequently hysterical personal lives and public mess of countercultural Italy. It's as stunning as it is dizzy: Characters keep walking into rooms and finding themselves in the midst of a demonstration. And in many ways the third novel is Ferrante's most timely, exploring how everyday people react to opposite-of-regular times. 2015's The Story of the Lost Child ends the epic with grace and ambiguity, unraveling a whole generation just in time for our own turbulent decade to begin.
Lord, it's fun. The books were translated into English by Ann Goldstein and became an understandable sensation around the world. (A very good TV series, titled My Brilliant Friend, adapted the first novel last year.) It's easy to see why, even if the sheer breadth of Ferrante's achievement remains astounding and mysterious. The author renders the central neighborhood with meticulous wonder. Certain events live across decades — a school competition, a fireworks display, a certain pair of shoes — becoming artifacts of endless meaning. The massive cast moves across the 20th century, spanning feminism and socialism, potraying the gangster-government axis and even the capitalist rise of computer technology.
Lenú's story is specific enough to suggest something autobiographical or confessional, but there's a universality here, too. Ferrante writes with sparkling erudition about everyday struggles — to be a woman, to be poor, to yearn for someone who yearns for another. There are thrilling periods in the Neapolitan Novels where the Big Plot Thing is, like, doing well in school, or struggling to balance raising a family with professional ambition. And then there are chapters where the characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances — throwing caution to the wind, their lives sanctified or ruined by passion. Lila and Lenú separate and reunite, finding each other in dire circumstances or delirious joy.
The 2010s turned into another radical period, transformative and destructive in equal measure. So reading Ferrante can be a tantalizingly escapist experience, too. For all the horrors in the book, there's a profound feeling of a community encircling the central characters. It's a cohesive society — parents, children, friends, enemies, the carpenter, the shoemaker — and even appearances by the monstrous criminal Solaras have the quality of a familiar-faced homecoming.
But don't be fooled by the period setting, or the lush vacation-baiting tour of major Italian cityscapes. The Neapolitan Novels are the series of the decade because they are so clearly of this decade: conflicted, revisionist, desperate, hopeful, revolutionary, euphorically feminine even in the face of assaultive male corrosion. Lucky we are to have Ferrante, a brilliant friend to all us lost children.