I discovered Elena Ferrante’s work through the Internet, specifically Twitter. I saw tweets of praise from women writers, who applauded Ferrante’s embodiment of female friendship in the characters of Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo—known in the books as Lenu and Lila, respectively. Even with the very public declarations of affection for Ferrante’s books, reading the Neapolitan Novels felt like my own unique discovery; I saw myself in both women, in their wavering friendship, plagued with insecurity and ambition. This year, though friendships like Lenu and Lila’s have been on our minds (Taylor Swift’s squad included), the need to read a visceral and non-performative narrative of feels especially necessary. Which might be part of the reason why it’s been a summer of #FerranteFever.
This week, I made my way up to Symphony Space, on New York City’s Upper West Side, for a discussion of the Neapolitan Novels with a group of esteemed panelists. When I got there, what I saw was all at once an expected surprise: Of course Ferrante fans from all over New York City would be there for the Thalia’s Book Club discussion of her work, of course! Unlike similar panels, though, the author was not present; Ferrante’s purposeful anonymity sometimes overtakes celebration of her work. (One of the wittiest moments of the night was when a panelist referred to Ferrante’s much-discussed absence: “For Halloween, go as what you think she looks like.”) We gathered to celebrate Ferrante anyway, with friends and book club mates. We were there to hear the Neapolitan Novels discussed. We were there to listen. And as the evening began, the buzz of conversation turned to celebratory laughter and applause.
While the discussion was bookended with readings by actors Zoe Kazan and Amy Ryan (reading from My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child, respectively), hearing Ferrante’s words read aloud wasn’t the highlight; the discussion to come was. Both illustrated the ever-present tensions between Lenu and Lila in their friendship that even as children manifests itself more as obsession than genuine affection. From the moment Lenu meets Lila, a competitive spark is ignited between the girls: for education, for affection, for men, for knowledge. Perhaps because there was more to narratively work with in The Story of the Lost Child, Ryan provided the stronger reading of the two, embodying Lenu’s flagging confidence in her abilities as a mother, compared to those of Aunt Lina, as Lenu’s children call Lila.
After author Amanda Stern provided some pointed one-liners in her introduction for the evening—“Some people even think she is male,” she said, pausing for a hiss from the audience, “but those people are men”—and Kazan read, the panelists walked to the stage to rounds of applause. Accompanying the moderator, New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal, were a few other “Ferrante-philes”: New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman, filmmaker John Waters, memoirist and economist Sonali Deraniyagala, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout.
The panelists each spoke about how they were drawn to her work. Sehgal spoke about her very own “brilliant friend,” who introduced her to the Neapolitan Novels by refusing to describe them. “She said, ‘They’re too intimate, they’re too exposed.’ I’m a good friend, so I said, ‘I don’t want you to ever feel exposed.’ And of course, I pick up the books on the way home, precisely to expose her, which is a very Ferrante-like impulse,” Sehgal said.
While friends also introduced Thurman and Deraniyagala to Ferrante’s work, Waters and Strout named James Wood’s New Yorker review as their introduction. Strout was interested in Ferrante’s anonymity; Waters noted her anger. “This is the angriest woman I have ever read. I love angry women, all my friends are angry women,” he said. Thurman, on the other hand, pushed back against the conception of Ferrante as a singularly angry woman. “These are human feelings that we have all and repress, women in particular,” she said. “This isn’t extreme rage, it’s the rage that would be current and accessible if women hadn’t been told they look prettier when they smile.” Ferrante’s rage is generally directed at poverty, at ignorance, and at male violence, and stands out all the more for its purposefulness.
That said, I think Waters has a point. As the lone man on the stage, his appraisal of Ferrante’s rage makes sense. For women, it isn’t at all shocking: We know it, because it’s buried inside, carefully held behind the façade of our everyday lives. When we dare to make our rage known, whether in response to sexual harassment on the street or in the workplace, or at home, or on mundane matters, there is risk: being called a bitch, or worse, a more violent reprisal. (One need not look farther than any discussion on street harassment.) But to men, even those like Waters who do not identify as a heterosexual, female anger can be startling. As Waters himself noted: “Here’s this panel with four women and a gay man, is it possible for a heterosexual men to read her?”
If David Lipsky’s scathing review of Ferrante’s Troubling Love is any indication, the answer may very well be a resounding no. Lipsky leads his review with his account of tearing the book in half in the midst of his second reading. “It’s the first time a novel ever made me get physical, and it was the first good mood I’d been in for weeks,” he wrote. Perhaps this is reason enough for Ferrante’s realistic portrait of rage.
Strout saw Ferrante’s anger as honesty. “The reason people think Ferrante is a man is because she’s so honest,” she said. Ferrante’s honesty shines best through Lila, Deraniyagla added, as she represents the “too much” quality often ascribed to women. But as Thurman noted, Ferrante is never sentimental—despite the saccharine book covers—and instead always seeks truth, even when it seems unflattering, as with Lenu’s choice of her childhood crush and lover Nino over her children and husband at the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. “Sentimentality is a channel,” Thurman explained. “With Ferrante, there are no channels, it’s just the sea.”
That is what draws readers in. Deraniyagala said that the Neapolitan Novels are like a good, but temperamental, friend who can change over time, leaving you by turns angry and frustrated, but ultimately satisfied. It’s reflected in the characters of Lenu and Lila, who obsess over each other through the entire series.
While Deraniyagala didn’t believe Ferrante’s anonymity mattered in the appeal of the Neapolitan Novels so much—“a series builds demand,” she said—Strout said that Ferrante’s absence heightened her relationship with the books and with their narrative voice. Sehgal added that it’s difficult to not think of Ferrante’s absence as a wholly other sort of presence, with so many women, and representations of those women, missing throughout the narrative. While Lila’s disappearance hangs over the whole arc of the series, there are the women like her sister-in-law Pinuccia, who is abused by her brother Rino, and Gigliola Spagnulo, whose body is found in the opening of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, who also disappear or go missing from life largely due to oppression or male violence.
Ferrante isn’t one to romanticize womanhood and the toils and rage that come with it. She tells us that there is honesty, and maybe even satisfaction—if not happiness—to be found in the attempt to live as one’s true self. It’s written into Lila and Lenu’s relationship, and perhaps even into life itself. But it’s never easy. Like Thurman said, quoting a brilliant friend in reference to Days of Abandonment: “You don’t read this book, you survive it.”