“Wade Into the Muck With Me.” On Reading and Re-Reading Elena Ferrante


To say that I have a few autobiographical similarities to the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend—a single novel in four installments often referred to in English as “The Neapolitan Novels” or the Neapolitan “Quartet”— would be a vast understatement. Like the narrator of all four volumes, Elena (“Lenu”) Greco, I was also born into a close-knit yet violent Italian neighborhood that no one ever seemed to leave, and, like Lenu, I fantasized constantly about “getting out,” using education as my primary propeller toward a different fate.

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Like Lenu, I became a writer, married a brainy introvert from a more educated family, raised children, struggled with the dichotomies between family life and making art, had a passionate affair, found myself constantly returning to the city I’d once sworn to escape, ultimately left my marriage, and struggled with the challenges of making a living as a writer while parenting three children.

Most significantly, as it is the heart of the Neapolitan Novels, my youth was also marked indelibly by my intimacy with a more beautiful, more charismatic and powerful girl who, despite her many gifts, seemed doomed. In Ferrante’s novels, this is the character of Raffaella Cerullo, called “Lina” by everyone but the narrator, who calls her only Lila. In my own memoir, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, I dubbed this friend “Angie,” a composite character streamlined both for narrative clarity and to protect privacy.

In this text, I will therefore continue to refer to that childhood friend as Angie, in part for consistency, and also because—as with the alliteration of Lenu and Lila—the other intimate girlhood/lifelong friend I’ll discuss in this book is called Alyssa (not her real name). Many of the dynamics between Lenu and Lila were also replicated in that friendship, only in a less dichotomous or binary way…which is to say that with Alyssa, sometimes I found myself the Lila, and sometimes the Lenu, over the duration of a bond that has now lasted for forty-five years. Life, unlike literature, does not often distill cleanly to one relationship through which every possible interpersonal dynamic is played out (one reason composite characters are so common, aside from privacy issues, in memoir), and so for me, Angie and Alyssa together embodies in my own life the Lenu-Lila dynamic.

To love Ferrante…was almost akin to a secret handshake in certain bookish, feminist circles.

Of course, Ferrante writes of girlhood in 1950s Naples (Lenu and Lila are both born in August of 1944), whereas Alyssa, Angie, and I were all born in 1968 and came of age in Chicago in the 1970s and 80s. The turbulent political landscape of Italy during some sixty years covered by Ferrante’s four novels is divergent in many ways from the (also turbulent) history of the United States, and the quintessential Italianness of the Neapolitan Novels is integral to the fate of its characters and radically different from my experience of Italian Americanness.

Whereas in my old neighborhood, boys growing to men in a state of hopeless poverty and stagnation often turned to gangs or became small-time workers for the Mob, those in Lenu and Lila’s world are as likely to become involved with Communism or Fascism, go on the run for political crimes, or attend political meetings in secret, as they are to become “gangsters”—in fact, the two things seem somewhat inextricable, especially with regards to organized crime in the United States, where politics and the Mafia have tended to be financial bedfellows but less associated with the exact same actors, especially among the working class.

Ferrante’s novels’ immersion in Italy—in particular Naples, and more specifically one poor, dialect-infused neighborhood in the city—is crucial to the understanding of how intensely personal readers’ responses to Ferrante have tended to be. Because although I am Italian American and grew up below the poverty line in a neighborhood quite similar to Lenu’s and Lila’s, that fact—or any other biographical fact—seems irrelevant when considering that almost every woman reader gripped by so-called “Ferrante fever” seems to feel similarly: as though these books were written for her, to her, revealing the insides of her own messy guts and brain.

As Claire Messud wrote in an email to Meghan O’Rourke, when O’Rourke was writing about Ferrante for The Guardian, “When you write to me and say you love her work, I have a moment where I think, ‘But…Elena is my friend! My private relationship with her, so intense and so true, is one that nobody else can fully know!’” To love Ferrante, especially in the days prior to her work being widely made into television series, was almost akin to a secret handshake in certain bookish, feminist circles. Yet it is fair to extrapolate that most of her avid American fans had upbringings radically different from Lenu’s and Lila’s in Naples. What readers relate to most are her characters’ fearlessly naked, almost unfathomably nuanced interior lives and relationships. You don’t have to be Italian, or poor, or have a “getting out” story, or to have known anyone in organized crime, to feel that Ferrante’s novels cut closer to the bone than other works of fiction.

This reputation—built long before her books were being made into media series’ and she was an international name—was built largely on word-of-mouth buzz. Ferrante had already become Italy’s best-known writer in English even though nobody knew the actual identity of the pseudonymous author. In our era of social media accessibility, influencer culture, self-promotion, and an obsession with hot young celebrities, this is nothing short of astounding: an unseen Italian woman of a certain age, of whom the critic James Wood wrote, “[c]ompared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate,” managed to make droves of readers worldwide feel the way one feels when a favorite indie band signs on a major label: wait, that’s my band—they were writing about and singing for me!

If it was once difficult to talk about Ferrante without directly discussing gender and authorship, after 2016 it became impossible. But eschewing questions of Ferrante’s identity for the moment and focusing on her readership, if one goes by anecdotal and critical evidence her audience is predominantly female, and even male critics who laud her see her work as highly gendered. Writes Wood, “Ferrante may never mention Hélène Cixous or French feminist literary theory, but her fiction is a kind of practical écriture feminine.” One certainly doesn’t have to be a woman to appreciate Ferrante…but to what extent might being one change the experience? When I was halfway through the inaugural novel in the series, My Brilliant Friend, in the twilight of 2014, I posted on Facebook that the book should be “required reading for anyone who wants to understand female psychology.”

A decade later, I still relate to that sentiment, but at the same time have grown wary of my own description. “Nothing quite like it has ever been published,” writes Meghan O’Rourke of the series in The Guardian: “four novels that make up a single book…a kind of quasifeminist bildungsroman that also happens to be a history of Italy in the late 20th century.” What is clear is that these novels are profoundly ambitious literary feats, unique in tone, style, and scope, when it often seems everything has already been done. Ferrante’s achievement—one novel, told in four luminous volumes—manages to be written with a complete absence of what Claire Vaye Watkins dubbed as “pandering” to the male literary establishment. If anything is clear from Lenu’s voice—from Ferrante’s writing across all her books—it is that she implicitly writes for the universal She. Her prose—passionate, intimate, urgent, confiding—shows no aesthetic concern for courting either male literary traditions or, perhaps, even male readers as a means of legitimizing her art; indeed, she hasn’t “needed” them. (Still, she is so scarily good that I can’t help but wonder: why doesn’t she have more of them anyway?)

Critics are not much divided on Ferrante in terms of acclaim for her writing, but are quite divided—and at times downright odd—in their discussion of why, in ways that also circle issues of gender. The Neapolitan Novels, arguably the deepest, widest and richest portrait of a lifelong friendship between two girls/women ever documented in literature (Ferrante often draws comparisons to Lessing in this regard, but the depth of her exploration of Lenu and Lila, over four books, truly has no rival), is a complicated artistic beast to be sure, yet the core focus on female friendship has tended to cause some critics to treat the novel’s complexity and multiplicity as so genre-busting and defying of categorization that it can smack of patronizing cloaked in praise.

Writes Elizabeth Lowry in the Wall Street Journal: “How should we classify Elena Ferrante’s magnificently complicated Neapolitan quartet? The three previous titles in the series—My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014)—defy categorization. Are they genre or literary fiction? Soap operas? Political epics? Some form of memoir?” Though it is not in itself in any way an “insult” to have one’s novel seen as multidimensional or nonconforming to one specific literary genre, it’s also impossible not to question whether a series of novels that explored the male psyche and relationships between men, while also involving politics, class issues, and a certain amount of meta exploration of literature itself, would be described as though its diverse themes were…so surprising as to defy categorization. Didn’t Updike attempt something similar in his Rabbit series, and Roth through Zuckerman, and Elroy in his Los Angeles Quartet?

Is serious fiction that chronicles characters over time and explores both the innermost depths of their intimate relationships, along with the political climate of the times and a profound interrogation of class struggles, truly such a confounding thing as to call into question whether we are reading a soap opera, or, as Lowry later invokes in her review, a thriller? Or does it only seem so because the focal characters are girls/young women for most of the pages?

If the lives of girls and young women are too often trivialized by the literary establishment (in the United States and in Europe), they are treated with mythical devotion by Ferrante. Indeed, one weakness of the Neapolitan Novels may be that Ferrante devotes so little page time to Lenu and Lila as mature women, in fact titling the final section of the novel, which focuses on the characters’ lives between the ages of forty to sixty-six—brace yourself—“Old Age.”

The singularly defining event of their lives (Ferrante’s titles are full of spoilers and this text will also include many) occurs in the final novel when Lenu and Lila have just turned forty and Lila’s beloved daughter Tina goes (permanently) missing under mysterious circumstances never revealed. The rest of their lives, especially once past fifty, are then sped over in strokes so broad as to be positively un-Ferrantean and that seem to reinforce patriarchal stereotypes of women becoming invisible with age. Here is a writer who can spend an entire thick novel on every thought and deed of girls between the ages of six and sixteen, yet the same women, once menopausal, no longer seem to interest their author much.

Lenu’s lovers, as she ages, seem to merit no scenes; if she has close friends after she and Lila part ways, we don’t ever meet them. Perhaps Ferrante initially gave herself free reign and then, after some 1,000 pages, panicked and felt she had better wrap things up already? Whatever the reason, the final third of the final novel feels that thing one never feels when reading a Ferrante novel: rushed. While the first three books—and The Story of the Lost Child as well—have a quality of breathless emotional fervor, they also unapologetically languish on any detail or side plot that strikes the narrator’s fancy. Guns are delightfully introduced in Act I that are not fired by Act III—people drop away, major concerns shift. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, though full of returning characters and at times coincidences that strain at realism, follow the rhythms of a life more than a traditional fictional narrative arc. It is disappointing, therefore, when this author who specializes in reading women’s minds and hearts seems to indicate that said minds and hearts are inherently less engaging in advanced age.

Of course, it is arguable that Lenu’s story simply becomes less relevant once she “gets out”—something it takes her until her fifties to fully do. Because as much as Lenu’s and Lila’s stories excavate iconic themes of womanhood, the Neapolitan series is also a quintessential rags-to-riches story, in which the two girls’ different ascents from abject poverty, and the intimate-yet-abhorrent neighborhood that keeps its claws in them, are as crucial to the story as any feminist themes or as the characters’ elaborate personal lives. Ironically, a piece on Buzzfeed held Ferrante up as a great writer of The American Dream. Writes Alissa Quart:

Where is the American equivalent of Ferrante?…The inequality novel that Americans will read in droves, that critics pay attention to? There was once The Great Gatsby, Bellow’s Augie March, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and The Financier, even Raymond Carver’s working-class silent men of 30 years ago. Certainly those who claim the neorealist caption— Jonathan Franzen, recently dubbed an author of ‘failed-marriage razzmatazz’ by one critic—have neglected this story.

Though the claim that no American authors are writing novels interrogating social class and either upward or downward mobility seems unfounded, Ferrante’s prowess as a chronicler of class, place, and history are not to be overshadowed by her focus on female friendship and motherhood. In the end, however, no single “topic” can fully explain Ferrante’s resonance. As Claire Messud writes:

Politics and feminism are compelling and important subjects but they won’t make readers long for the novels with the zeal of a nine-year-old. Only the human heart can do that, the emotionally truthful depiction of the complex web of love, desire, loathing, envy, compassion and pain that binds people over a lifetime. Ultimately, Ferrante has framed her magnum opus—for all its tremendous ambition, and in spite of the tumult of events that resounds through the pages at ever-greater, eventually exhausting, speed—as a simple love story. These books deal above all with the perpetually unrequited but never extinguished Platonic passion…

I would extend this further to say that Lenu and Lila’s relationship, though central, is not the only uncannily rich relationship propelling the books, and that character—characters in interaction with one another and, of course, with themselves—is Ferrante’s rarest of gifts. She seems capable of transmitting the untranslatable alchemy of human psychology onto the page in a whole other league from even other contemporary masters of character like Franzen. Accordingly, her audience identifies fiercely with what her characters feel about motherhood, ambition, jealousy, desire, justice, writing, aging. Ferrante writes so ferociously, so from the inside out, that we know the inhabitants of Lenu’s world more intricately than we could likely hope to know such a large ensemble cast in even our own lives. It is easy to emerge from the Neapolitan Quartet feeling slightly dazed, as though everything we have ever heard about “character development” was little more than a bullet point list in the hands of other writers.

And Lila, of course, is both Ferrante’s and Lenu’s piece de resistance. As Lenu says of her friend, in a cross between rhapsody and lament:

She possessed intelligence and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches of the world are merely a sign of vulgarity.

She stood out among so many because she, naturally, did not submit to any training, to any use, or to any purpose. All of us had submitted and that submission had—through trials, failures, successes— reduced us. Only Lila, nothing and no one seemed to reduce her.

One fascinating—yet easy to forget at times, in the thousands of pages of writing—aspect of the Neapolitan Novels is the metafictional fact that Lenu is physically writing them on her computer as we read, as a “memoir” of her friendship with Lila. As such, we are not only reading about Lila through Lenu’s highly biased eyes, but also through the lens of a woman who has just realized that the most important figure in her life has gone missing, and who is therefore—although she refuses to show it to Lila’s grown son or even to herself—in a heightened emotional state. The circumstances unfolding as Lenu writes set her up as an unreliable narrator, and—especially on subsequent readings—many of Lenu’s assessments of both herself and Lila feel (intentionally, on the part of Ferrante) biased and not necessarily how the reader might interpret them.

In my own experience of first reading the books, I found myself initially taking Lenu’s word for things, then—on subsequent readings—becoming irritated with her for the way she frequently misreads and misunderstands people, herself included. Finally, as I revisited the novels again for this project, I came full circle to a kind of wild pleasure that Lenu cannot get outside her own head and experience writing her story because—come on!—who can? Yes, perhaps time and distance leads to a more objective memoir than writing one in the throes of a mysterious tragedy such as the complete disappearance of a sixty-six-year-old woman…but these books, already more nuanced than even most of the great novels, become even more so when we keep in mind that our “author” is our narrator and protagonist.

It is through Lenu’s eyes, therefore, that we witness Lila’s life, and the reader must hold in her mind not only what we are told about Lila—and indeed “shown” in ways Lenu chooses (or, were she a real person, we would say “the way she remembers events”)—but that we must constantly hold Lenu’s interpretation as suspect, given what we understand about memory, about rejection, about envy, about love. Can one write a memoir about their friendship with someone of whom they were in turns worshipful, ferally jealous, determined to save, even more determined to surpass, likely in love with, and at times hateful about? Well, certainly one can, and many real and fictional memoirs have done so. But should the reader believe that narrator’s truth as the only Truth? When are opinions Ferrante’s, vs. when are they “Lenu’s,” constructed volitionally by Ferrante to make Lenu unreliable in the classic sense: revealing things at every turn that are not always quite what she thinks she is revealing?

In our now-memoir-savvy world, most would concur that we are to draw our own conclusions and that any narrator’s opinions (certainly one in a metafictional novel posing as memoir) are more like breadcrumbs. Lila, though possibly still alive, is in absentia by her own choice and cannot tell her side of the story. Lenu, on the other hand, hopes to goad her friend back into existence by documenting their friendship, the one thing she swore to Lila she would never do. She looks for traces of Lila in her computer files, living with the fantasy that her friend is so larger than life that she has not only managed to evaporate without a trace but will then find a way—from her hidden location—to hack into Lenu’s computer, somehow divining that this memoir is being written, and change it, alter it, collaborate in its creation, as the two talked about co-writing a book as girls.

We are told near the end that Lenu has desperately read and reread, looking for traces of Lila, but has not found her; the memoir is complete, Lenu its only author. And so, we should be wary of the interpretations of a woman not only driven by grief but staging a literal provocation to anger Lila out of hiding. Ironically, when reading a “novel” without such a meta component, there is the option of assuming what we are told happened and who characters are shown to be is “unbiased” (even though of course every author is biased, as every person is biased), but there is no such option in the Neapolitan Novels. Despite the mirrored first name—Elena/Elena—Ferrante did not choose to give Elena “Lenu” Greco the Ferrante surname, and so we walk a tightrope between the works as a long four-volume novel by the invisible yet famous novelist Elena Ferrante, and the work as a memoir written over a matter of weeks in the thrall of pain and nostalgia by the character Elena “Lenu” Greco. One writes under an alias; one is suffering immensely…believe them completely at your own risk?

I come to the My Brilliant Friend saga not only to praise and fawn, but to interrogate and dissent.

For example, was Lila, as in Lenu’s estimation, genuinely incapable of being reduced? One can easily imagine Lila laughing at the notion, arguing convincingly that her entire life has been a reduction, until she finally reduced to nothing at all, while Lenu has expanded, broken out, soared. She says/she says. The Lila of the page—who is both one of the most multidimensional characters in literature, yet also a metaphor, a riddle, a philosophical question with no answer—can never just resolve. “A hallmark of Ferrante’s writing,” O’Rourke says in The Guardian, “is [this] juxtaposition between matter-of-factness and metaphor, between hyperrealism and hallucinatory distortion.” Such is the magic of Lila, of Lenu’s memory, and of the series.

In my own life, neither Angie nor Alyssa disappeared without a trace (we are all in our mid-fifties, so theoretically, there’s time!), leaving a wake of mystery behind, rendering themselves forever my obsession.

Rather, Angie settled down, got a job, a partner, a dog (in other words, in Lenu’s judgmental eyes, she was “reduced”), and although we still keep in touch and I will always love her with a unique intensity, in modern parlance we have long since “grown apart,” our lives diverging in very different directions, as these things go. Perhaps, even, there is an element—as there often is—of neither of us quite wanting the other around all the time, reminding us both of who we used to be, of the embarrassments and traumas of our youths, the pain we mutually lived in that—at the time—we did not quite recognize as pain because we had never known anything different, and of the envy we each had of the other, which shames me in particular now that I am able to look at Angie’s life from an adult lens and recognize it—similarly to Lila’s compared with Lenu’s—as having been far more brutal and high stakes than my own.

Unlike Lenu, who never emerges from her Lila-envy no matter what tragedies befall her friend, I am now rather ashamed of myself for having been jealous of a young girl who was treated poorly in myriad complex ways by her father and was often targeted by older boys for her beauty and grew up far too fast and not in keeping with her own intrinsic desires, whereas my own parents were gentle people and—though it pained me at the time—most of the guys in our neighborhood left me alone due to some combination of my naked antipathy toward them, my mother’s overprotectiveness, and my lesser good looks. Angie’s life has turned out quite well in the long run, but as with Lila’s, it did not look for a long while as though it would play that way, and the fact that it did was absolutely no thanks to me, as I was rushing around the world for school and love and ambition.

Alyssa, on the other hand, is now a teacher in our former elementary school, and continues to be a figure of near daily prominence in my life. She lives only a few blocks from me, with her husband to whom I introduced her, one of their grown daughters, and two highly ill-behaved dogs. She and I went to college in tandem, raised our children in tandem, call ourselves sisters, which defines our relationship better than “best friends,” especially given that we are both highly aware that if we met now, we would be unlikely to take much notice of each other at all as a potential friend and confidante. We are incredibly different people, one case-in-point being that, like Lila, Alyssa has never lived outside of Chicago. Though we live roughly four miles north of our old neighborhood (a different universe), Alyssa continues to commute daily to our old elementary school to work, and by thirty or so she had settled into a contented middle age, dressing in sensible teacher garb, eschewing makeup, comfortably putting on weight and giving no fucks about it, taking the occasional trip to visit family and never leaving the country, and not taking any trip without her daughters and husband until her children were both over eighteen. She was the one “Who Stayed,” and I the one “Who Leaves,” per the title of Ferrante’s second installment, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

Um…or kind of. Like Lenu, I went away to college and for some time never looked back. I studied and worked in London, traveled Europe, met my first husband (also an American) in France, moved with him to the east coast of the US where we both attended graduate school, came back to Chicago for a while but then was off again to live in Amsterdam, in Switzerland, before finally returning to Chicago in 1999 when, far from the wandering bohemian life I had once aspired to, my aging parents moved into the downstairs apartment of the house I still live in, where they remained until their deaths a few years ago. In that house, my ex and I adopted two daughters and had a third child in an unexpected pregnancy. By the time my debut novel came out at the end of 2005, I had two kindergarten-aged children, two disabled parents who relied on me for much of their daily upkeep and was seven months pregnant. Some “those who leave” I turned out to be!

At the time of this writing, I have lived in Chicago, and specifically in the same home, for twenty-four years. Although I have been far more prone to dash around the country for my work or to take international holidays than Alyssa, for all intents and purposes by this age we might both be Stayers. Angie, too, lives in Chicago, and to my knowledge has never lived anywhere else. In 2017, my second husband, Rob, moved from the Los Angeles area to live with me and my children, as despite my oft-voiced desire to “get out,” by then my children were deeply entrenched in lives of their own, my mother growing ever frailer after my father’s death. Leaving no longer seemed an option.

Lenu finally leaves Naples for good in 1995, when she is fifty-one. As we speak, Rob and I plan to leave Chicago in September 2024 after our youngest leaves for college; I will be fifty-six. But even then, I suspect I will be back. For all my travels, Chicago holds my most longstanding friendships, my children’s histories and relationships, my beloved writing group. Though in my current life, in which most of my friends are not Italian-American and grew up with college-educated parents, it is incredibly common to have left home by the age of eighteen and to have never returned for more than a summer break at most; for me, such an uprooted way of life, entirely ordinary in the United States, seems unfeasible. We have all—Alyssa, Angie, and I—been marked by the insular and almost feudal nature of our old Italian/Puerto Rican neighborhood, even if we no longer live within its confines.

When I read the Neapolitan Novels, I see my past—at times dizzyingly, uncomfortably, triggeringly; at other times beautifully and affirmingly—but I no longer see myself. I am now an age beyond Ferrante’s (and Lenu’s) interest, relegated to the domain of fading “Old Age,” even if, in the life I lead as a contemporary American woman, such invisibility and obscurity is not my actual experience. It is a challenge to love novels this passionately that seem to affirm the erasure of women over fifty, to be mindful of contextualizing them in their era and geography, to understand the erasure of my current life story from a series that (with some notable exceptions) seem to otherwise all but chronicle my life story through my forties. The endeavor requires holding in my mind that it is not the job of a novel to present a utopian vision, but rather to present facts as they seem to the novelist, and even here in the United States in 2024, it is hard to so much as check Facebook without finding some kind of reference to female invisibility post-forty and especially post-menopause. Individual people do not always reflect perfectly larger cultural phenomenon, but just because we may have escaped certain fates (for now) does not mean these fates don’t echo the realities of many women’s lives.

To love a certain piece of literature—to identify intensely with it—is not the same thing as agreeing with its every implicit bias or viewpoint, and if literature is, in a sense, my church, I come to it with the sensibility that to interrogate and sometimes rail against faith is a duty of the faithful. In this spirit, I come to the My Brilliant Friend saga not only to praise and fawn, but to interrogate and dissent. To commit to reading the Neapolitan Novels to begin with is a rigorous and impassioned endeavor, not for every reader. For those who don’t go in for digressions, who don’t care for the distinction between live-wire emotional prose vs. sentimentality, who cannot be persuaded to care about the lives of young girls no matter how artfully and intelligently presented, the books would be an exercise in frustration, sure to be thrown across the room (where, heavy as they are, something would be broken, just as Lila might desire). For readers willing to be seduced, however, these four intoxicating volumes comprise nothing less than a singular masterpiece. And it is to you—those readers—to whom I now writing, and whom I invite to wade into the muck with me.

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From Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: Bookmarked by Gina Frangello. Copyright © 2024. Available from Ig Publishing. A variation on parts of this introduction originally appeared in Electric Literature at “What We Talk About When We Talk About Elena Ferrante.”

Gina Frangello



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