“There are people who leave and people who know how to be left.”
I got my love of reading from my mom, just like she got her love of gardening from her mom. She’s a voracious reader – and fittingly works in the local public library.
You’d think that we would have our own little book club, but alas, our reading interests are completely different. Where I focus on history and non-fiction (you might have noticed), she reads thrillers and crime novels. Her favorite books are the ones that play in tiny English villages. I guess she likes her blood fictional, I like mine real.
There are exceptions, of course – most notably, the Harry Potter novels. I remember her sneaking into my bedroom, stealing the book off my nightstand while I was sleeping, and reading during the night. I’d steal the book back from her the coming morning.
So I was elated when I came across ‘My Brilliant Friend’, the first in the Neapolitan Novels series by Elena Ferrante. I thought I hit all the checkmarks and, for once, I could give my mom a good recommendation. If anything, this is a book made for moms: The books chronicle the story of a friendship between two girls, starting in 1950s Napoli when they are six years old. As the kids grow up, the novels paint a uniquely detailed portrait of their lives, and the lives of the people living in their part of town.
There is not much happening – no murders, no big historical events – and yet I couldn’t put the book down. The lives of Elena and Lila were so real, so amazingly written. It is one of the richest portraits of friendship that I have ever come across – both of them inspire and disappoint each other at turns. They aren’t always best friends – there are months without contact, where their lives take different directions. But then, isn’t that exactly how friendships work in real life?
And as they grow up, they have decisions to make – Most notably, Elena is allowed to continue her education, whereas Lila is forced to start working after fourth grade. You watch them making their way through life, and although you don’t always agree with their decisions, you cannot help but root for them. In a way, you become the third friend in the group – listening in on their conversations, trying to justify their actions, hoping that it will all work out in the end.
You don’t always like them – in all honesty, sometimes I could not help being disappointed by Lila or Elana or both. Sometimes I plain didn’t like them. (Elena has an annoying habit of self-pity, whereas Lila is nothing less than terrifyingly independently minded.) But you cannot help but root for them – this book introduces you to all these amazing characters, and you cannot let go. You want to know what happens next.
As I said, there are four books in this series. I have taken to reading one each year, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it means I don’t breeze through the books and take my time spacing them out. Coming back to the series always feels like coming home to familiar characters – it’s a bit like having been away for a while, and catching up with old friends. On the other hand, the sheer number of side-characters makes this approach a bit dangerous – thankfully, the book comes with a who’s who of the characters and where you left them. Still, it is a bit like stepping back into a soap opera.
I usually try to read the book while on vacation – there is something about these books that makes you think of summer, and vacation, and beaches. This year was no different – I read ‘Those who leave and those who stay’, the third installment in the series, on a tiny balcony overlooking Lisbon, and on a rickety train to Faro, and then, finally, in a café in Madrid. It was the perfect travel companion.
It was as good as the previous two installments, which means it was amazing. I cannot praise this book enough.
And yet – Mom doesn’t like it. She found the book ‘boring’ (WHAT) and ‘depressing’ (WHAT). I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it still hurt. (Mom, I hope reading this makes you give this book another try.)
So yes. If you’re looking for a great character study, look no further.
One last thing – HBO adapted the books. The series premiere is this fall! And, in an exciting move, they decided to keep the original Neapolitan language and show it with English subtitles. Can’t wait.
Next week – Another Pulitzer winner, but this time in fiction!