Female Friendship Is Life’s Great, Thwarted Romance in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more spending time with my oldest girlfriends is a relief, akin to sinking into a pool on a hot day. Mostly, this is because it’s impossible to feel self-conscious in front of those who knew you when braces and social humiliation were the order of the day. The fronts we all put on at work or at parties (or now, for some, with the babysitter) melt away.

At the same time, this glorious soak in selfhood can lead to a self-scrutiny that’s less refreshing. How have I lived up to the promise I showed when I was the girl raising my hand in class and running to the lockers to retrieve forgotten textbooks? What have I done with the enthusiasm, ambition, and faith that once sat so easily on my shoulders — and presumably that attracted my friends to me? There’s nothing like an old friend to make you feel comfortable, and also the opposite: to turn on a floodlight that illuminates your footsteps through the years.

Elena Ferrante’s treatment of the push-pull dynamic of female friendship is one of the reasons I’ve become so obsessed with her Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which will be followed by a currently unnamed fourth novel. Count me and Gwyneth Paltrow (she blurbed it!) among the members of the American reading public who have been utterly enraptured by narrator Elena’s lifelong friendship with Lila, as laid out in a series of books written in Italian by Ferrante and translated by Ann Goldstein. Ferrante is a mysterious, reclusive author who only agrees to be interviewed through her publisher (even in the case of allegedly “in-person” interviews). There are rumors that Ferrante is a man writing under a pseudonym, or a couple, and they have gotten their share of criticism from female critics who think her writing encapsulates so much about modern womanhood that she must be one of us.

For instance: the repeating idea that Lila and Elena together are not just complementary but a single whole unit, forged in childhood. As they grow older and their girlhood competition over fearlessness and report cards begins to manifest as vastly different lives, the sense grows that neither can be happy and successful at the same thing at the same time. In the first book, Elena as a young teenager describes this belief with a kind of brutal frankness you don’t usually see in fiction:

I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila.  I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences.  In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighbourhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become.  It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.  In Ischia I had felt beautiful, and the impression had lingered on my return to Naples …But Lila now had retaken the upper hand, satisfaction had magnified her beauty, while I, overwhelmed by schoolwork, exhausted by my frustrated love for Nino, was growing ugly again.

It seems a cruel way to think, but it’s also a mindset that connects the two and elicits empathy from each towards the other. Later, in The Story of a New Name (volume 2), Elena forgets to think this way, so caught up is she in her own achievement. This results in a missed moment for them both: “It never occurred to me, as, in fact, it had on other occasions, that she had felt the need to humiliate me in order to better endure her own humiliation.”

In Ferrante’s treatment of a friendship’s debris-strewn trajectory, we find the same themes that appear in Elisa Albert’s masterful After Birth or, going back further, Toni Morrison’s Sula. The forces of society — nuclear family units, marriage, sexual jealousy, economic need, even the whole capitalist concept of individuality and competition, sunder women’s elemental cooperation. Yet because of what existed at the beginning, women’s yearning for pure female friendship never leaves them, even when it is warped into envy or hatred.

The literary idea that friends’ lives represent unmade choices, roads not taken, is applicable across gender and genre. Naturally, however, it has a particular resonance for women, because so many of life’s choices have particular resonance for women. Whether in 2015 United States or in postwar, pre-feminist Italy, women still feel like they have to lean in the direction of either family or career, creative fulfillment or economic necessity. For Lila and Elena, escaping their impoverished, violence-stricken neighborhood where domestic abuse is only one part of being treated as “lesser than,” involves marriage for one, academic success for the other. But then things switch, and switch again; the women end up crisscrossing through different means of self-sustenance. Each resents the other for squandering opportunities, but the question lingers: how many “ways out” are even possible?

There’s a scene towards the end of the third novel when both women, now mothers, are at dinner with their extended families — including members the thuggish Solara clan, who serve as the series’ complicated villains. The families begin comparing the women’s careers, their intrinsic intelligence. In their efforts to demonstrate how the two women have transcended the petty rivalries of the neighborhood, of course, the families drag them right back in.

Now, when I mention my oldest friends, I’m speaking of the girlfriends I met when I was 12. None of my childhood friendships have lasted beyond cursory coffees. This is logical on one level, because such friendships are mostly about proximity and convenience, the ability to walk to each other’s homes and have sleepovers. But on the other hand, I still feel like a part of me has been torn away, the part that created elaborate Barbie games, magic worlds, and lip sync performances. The part, in essence, that gave birth to my imagination. It’s hard to explain that sense of loss — and I’ve often put myself down, or been put down, by dismissing the feeling as simple envy.

But consider Ferrante’s treatment of The Blue Fairy, Lila’s childhood book, that haunts both women for their lives. Elena realizes it’s never left her, and showed up in her own book, hidden.

Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly colored cover, the title, and not even a signature.

When Elena tries to make amends by returning the book to Lila, Lila burns it, as if to say that by using it for her book, Elena has stolen something from her that can’t be reclaimed.

I think the girls’ primitive collaborations have been taken away from them both, and in response they steal from each other for their whole lives. They compete over men, over families, over the experience of childbirth and whether it’s painful or marvelous. Yet they need each other to fulfill the goals that each has fallen short of. It’s hard to explain how true this feels. Yet seeing Ferrante take it so seriously, with rage and anger, made me take myself and my complex feelings about my many years of forgotten and enduring friendships seriously, too.

I can’t think of a greater feminist achievement for a piece of literature.