by Crysta Jarczynski
It took me about a year and a half but I finally finished The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. They are four novels that follow the protagonist Elena (Lenu) Greco through her life, starting in a poor neighborhood in Naples, and how it is influenced by her best friend, Raffaela (Lina) Cerullo. The novels include such a large cast of characters that Ferrante lists everyone and their relations at the beginning of each novel- in case you lose track.
Elena and Lina are both very intelligent girls and they are drawn together by this shared trait. While Elena continues her education through high school and college and becomes a well-known author, Lina’s parents do not allow her to continue past grade school and she stays in the neighborhood for her whole life. Both women have vastly different experiences of success, romance, motherhood, and coping with living a live surrounded by violence. Their friendship is far from perfect; like many lifelong friendships they grow apart and back together multiple times throughout the novels. Their relationship is influenced by jealousy from both parties- Elena is jealous of a natural intelligence and control over others that Lina seems to possess while Lina is jealous of Elena’s upward mobility and the distance she’s created between herself and the neighborhood. They both see the other as more powerful. The story is told only from Elena’s perspective, so as readers we never really get to know for sure what is going on in Lina’s mind, except what she shares with Elena and sometimes that’s very limited. But Elena is a champion speculator.
I loved these books because I think they provide a very real representation of friendship- nothing is romanticized. It’s complicated and messy. I’ve found in my life that friendships can often be more difficult to regulate than even romantic relationships. With a partner, there’s at least an expectation for a certain amount of transparency and a degree of closeness. Friendships can range from acquaintances to sibling-like relationships. While we look for a partner and work with that person to make sure we’re on the same page and have the same goals, we expect friendships to develop organically. There are potentially a lot more unspoken hopes with a friendship. And while romantic relationships that are not working generally have a clear end, friendships that are dysfunctional can sometimes drift apart with unresolved issues, or stay close which is sometimes worse. All in all it’s socially acceptable to talk about the relationship with a partner; it’s often socially awkward to talk about the relationship with a friend.
I don’t think it has to be this way, and personally, I’ve explored defining the relationship with some of my close friends- asking what kind of friendship they were hoping for and seeing if it lined up with what I wanted. It was awkward, but the couple of times I’ve tried have yielded two close friendships.
Lina and Elena don’t talk about their relationship, even though the reader gets to hear many of Elena’s theories about why their friendship is the way it is. We get to be with Elena and sympathize with her, celebrate her successes and feel her loneliness. They’re beautiful books about complicated women. I loved them and have to read them again.