Lara Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and motherhood while rereading the works of Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962), in particular, dramatizes women’s struggles to combine their disparate roles into a harmonious identity. Drawing inspiration from Lessing as well as from another early feminist novel, The Group by Mary McCarthy (more on this below), Feigel’s debut novel crafts a kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018.
Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly and Priss met at a picnic while studying at Oxbridge and decided to rent a house together. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have branched in slightly different directions. Kay is an English teacher but has always wanted to be a novelist like her American husband, Harald. Priss is a stay-at-home mother excited to be opening a café. Polly, a gynaecological consultant at St Thomas’s Hospital, is having an affair with a married colleague. Helena, a single documentary presenter, decides she wants to have a baby and pursues insemination via a gay friend.
Narrating her friends’ lives as well as her own is Stella, an editor at a Faber-like publishing house whose director (also Helena’s uncle) is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Stella, a stand-in for the author, has split from her husband and has a new baby via IVF as well as an older child; this hint of autofiction lends the book an intimacy it might have lacked with an omniscient perspective. Although you have to suspend disbelief in a few places – could Stella really know so many details of her friends’ lives? – it feels apt that she can only understand these other women in relation to herself. Her voice can be catty, but is always candid, and Feigel is astute on the performative aspects of femininity.
Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by about 20 years and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It is a sexually frank and socially engaged narrative that arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The characters express guilt over lamenting middle-class problems while there is such suffering in the wider world – we glimpse this in Polly’s work with African girls who have undergone genital mutilation. The diversity is limited to Black boyfriends, Helena’s bisexuality, and the fact that one group member decides not to have children (that 1 in 5 is statistically accurate).
The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group, though, is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Stella even sees herself as an amateur anthropologist:
So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work.
Feigel previously wrote two group biographies of cultural figures of the Second World War era, and she applies that precise skill set – capturing the atmosphere of a time period; noting similarities but also clear distinctions between people – to great effect here. You’ll recognize aspects of yourself in all of the characters, and be reminded of how grateful you are for (or how much you wish you had) friends whom you know will always be there for you. It’s an absorbing and relevant novel that ranks among my few favourites of the year so far.
The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
See Susan’s review also.
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
As soon as I heard about Lara Feigel’s forthcoming novel, I unearthed the Mary McCarthy paperback I’d plucked from Bookbarn’s shelves in 2017. I decided to read Feigel’s first, lest it feel less than fresh; perhaps inevitably, McCarthy’s felt dated in comparison. I had trouble engaging with it as a whole, but still enjoyed contrasting the two books.
McCarthy focuses on eight girls from the Vassar class of ’33. Kay, the first to marry, has an upper-crust New York City wedding one week after graduation. But after Harald loses his theatre job, his cocktail habit and their luxury apartment soon deplete Kay’s Macy’s salary. Meanwhile, Dottie loses her virginity to Harald’s former neighbour in a surprisingly explicit scene. Contraception is complicated, but not without comic potential – as when Dottie confuses a pessary and a peccary. Career, romance, and motherhood are all fraught matters.
Feigel borrows the names of four of her five group members, plus those of some secondary characters, from McCarthy, with Stella a new character perhaps inspired in part by McCarthy’s Libby, who wants to work with books but, after delivering an earnest report on a 500-page pot-boiler, hears that “we really have no work that you’re uniquely qualified to do. You’re one of thousands of English majors who come pouring out of the colleges every June, stage-struck to go into publishing.” (That sure sounds familiar!)
Narrowing the circle and introducing a first-person narrator were wise choices that made Feigel’s version more accessible. Both, though, are characterized by forthright commentary and a shrewd understanding of human motivations. I’ll try again with McCarthy’s The Group someday, but for now I’m planning to pick up her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp.
I’d never participated in Nonfiction November before because I tend to read at least 40% nonfiction anyway, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to put together some fiction and nonfiction pairings based on books I’ve read this year and last. (This week of the month-long challenge is posted by Sarah’s Book Shelves, a blog I love for its no-nonsense recommendations of what to read – and what not to read – from the recent U.S. releases.)
My primary example is two books that reveal what it’s really like to have Alzheimer’s disease. Mitchell’s, in particular, is a book that deserves more attention. When it came out earlier this year, it was billed as the first-ever “dementia memoir” (is that an oxymoron?) – except, actually, there had been one the previous year (whoops!): Memory’s Last Breath by Gerda Saunders, which I have on my Kindle and still intend to read. [See also Kate W.’s picks, which include a pair of books with a dementia theme.]
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)
Genova’s writing, Jodi Picoult-like, keeps you turning the pages; I read 225+ pages in an afternoon. There’s true plotting skill to how Genova uses a close third-person perspective to track the mental decline of Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language,” yet her grasp of language becomes ever more slippery even as her thought life remains largely intact. I also particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Cambridge and its weather, and family meals and rituals. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required – Would the disease really progress this quickly? Would Alice really be able to miss certain abilities and experiences once they were gone? – and ultimately I preferred the 2014 movie version, but this would be a great book to thrust at any caregiver or family member who’s had to cope with dementia in someone close to them.
Other fictional takes on dementia that I can recommend: Unforgettable: Short Stories by Paulette Bates Alden, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson and Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante.
Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell with Anna Wharton (2018)
A remarkable insider’s look at the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mitchell took several falls while running near her Yorkshire home, but it wasn’t until she had a minor stroke in 2012 that she and her doctors started taking her health problems seriously. In July 2014 she got the dementia diagnosis that finally explained her recurring brain fog. She was 58 years old, a single mother with two grown daughters and a 20-year career in NHS administration. Having prided herself on her good memory and her efficiency at everything from work scheduling to DIY, she was distressed that she couldn’t cope with a new computer system and was unlikely to recognize the faces or voices of colleagues she’d worked with for years. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she took early retirement – a decision that she feels was forced on her by a system that wasn’t willing to make accommodations for her.
The book, put together with the help of ghostwriter Anna Wharton, gives a clear sense of progression, of past versus present, and of the workarounds Mitchell uses to outwit her disease. The details and incidents are well chosen to present the everyday challenges of dementia. For instance, baking used to be one of Mitchell’s favorite hobbies, but in an early scene she’s making a cake for a homeless shelter and forgets she’s already added sugar; she weighs in the sugar twice, and the result is inedible. By the time the book ends, not only can she not prepare herself a meal; she can’t remember to eat unless she sets an alarm and barricades herself into the room so she won’t wander off partway through.
In occasional italicized passages Mitchell addresses her past self, running through bittersweet memories of all that she used to be able to do: “It amazes me now how you did it, because you didn’t have anyone to help you. You were Mum, Dad, taxi, chef, counsellor, gardener and housekeeper, all rolled into one.” Yet it’s also amazing how much she still manages to do as an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends. She crisscrosses the country to give speeches, attend conferences, and advise universities; she writes a blog and has appeared on radio to promote this book. Like many retired people, she’s found she’s busier than ever, and her engagements help her to feel purposeful and like she’s giving a positive impression of early-stage dementia. No matter that she has to rely on dozens of reminders to self in the form of Post-It notes, iPad alarms and a wall of photographs.
The story lines of this and Still Alice are very similar in places – the incidents while running, the inability to keep baking, and so on. And in fact, Mitchell reviewed the film and attended its London premiere, where she met Julianne Moore. Her book is a quick and enjoyable read, and will be so valuable to people looking to understand the experience of dementia. She is such an inspiring woman. I thank her for her efforts, and wish her well. This is one of my personal favorites for the shortlist of next year’s Wellcome Book Prize for medical reads.
Additional pairings I would commend to you (all are books I have read and rated or above):
Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
- Celebrating the strength of female friendship, even in the face of life-threatening illness.
Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
- Vivid portrayals of drug addiction.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
- Armchair traveling in Greenland.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
- Glimpses into the high-class world of fine dining – and fine wine.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence is chock-full of recommendations and reading pairs. The Novel Cure is also good for this sort of thing, though it is (no surprise) overwhelmingly composed of fiction suggestions.
This was one of the catchphrases of long-time judge Randy Jackson on the reality TV show American Idol, which was my guilty pleasure viewing for a decade or more. The three recent books for which I provide short-ish reviews below have nothing much in common apart from the fact that I requested or accepted them from publishers and ended up feeling disappointed but like I still owed a review. You can consider them all .
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver
(Duckworth, March 22nd)
We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, so friends are more important than ever. That’s the impetus for Kate Leaver’s jaunty, somewhat insubstantial book about modern friendship. She observes teen girls on the Tube and reflects on how we as primates still engage in social grooming – though language has replaced much of this more primitive bond-forming behavior. We experience a spike in our number of friends through adolescence and early adulthood, but friendships can fall by the wayside during our thirties as we enter long-term relationships and turn our attention to children and other responsibilities. Leaver argues that female friendships can amplify women’s voices and encourage us to embrace imperfection. She also surveys the bromance, mostly in its TV and film manifestations. There are plenty of pop culture references in the book; while I enjoy a Scrubs or Parks and Recreation scene or quotation as much as the next fan, the reliance on pop culture made the book feel lightweight.
Perhaps the most useful chapter was the one on online friendships (hi, book blogger friends!). We so often hear that these can’t replace IRL friendships, but Leaver sticks up for social media: it allows us to meet like-minded people, and is good for introverted and private people. Anything is better than isolation. The biggest problem I had with the book was the tone: Leaver is going for a Caitlin Moran vibe, and peppers in hip references to Taylor Swift, Lindsay Lohan and the like. But then she sometimes tries for more of a Mary Beard approach, yet doesn’t trust herself to competently talk about science, so renders it in matey, anti-intellectual language like “Robin [Dunbar, of Oxford University] did some fancy maths” (um, I think you mean “Dr. Dunbar”!) or “Let me hit you with a bit of research.”
“on some days, somewhere in our souls, we still count the number of social media connections as a measure of who we are”
“When you successfully recruit a new person into your friendship circle, you’re essentially confirming that you are a likable human being, worthy of someone’s time and emotional investment.”
You might choose to read instead: Kory Floyd’s The Loneliness Cure; Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; Anna Quindlen’s essay “Girlfriends” from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge
(Harvill Secker, January 11th)
David Lodge has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade. His first memoir, Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935–1975 (see my Nudge review), is a good standalone read, even for non-fans, for its insight into the social changes of post-war Britain. However, this volume makes the mistake of covering much less ground, in much more detail – thanks to better record-keeping at the peak of his career – and the result is really rather tedious. The book opens with the publication of How Far Can You Go? and carries through to the reception of Paradise News, with a warning that he cannot promise a third volume; he is now 83. Conferences, lecture tours, and travels are described in exhaustive detail. There’s also a slightly bitter edge to Lodge’s attempts to figure out why ventures flopped or novels got negative reviews (Small World, though Booker-shortlisted, was better received in America), though he concludes that his career was characterized by more good luck than bad.
I liked the account of meeting Muriel Spark in Italy, and valued the behind-the-scenes look at the contentious task of judging the 1989 Booker Prize, which went to Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Days. Especially enjoyable is a passage about getting hooked on saunas via trips to Finland and to Center Parcs, a chain of all-inclusive holiday activity camps in England. Oh how I laughed at his description of nude sauna-going in midlife (whether I was supposed to or not, I’m not sure): “The difference in pleasure between swimming wearing a costume of any kind and the sensation of swimming without one, the water coursing unimpeded round your loins as you move through it, cannot be exaggerated, and I first discovered it in Center Parcs.” I also cringed at the Lodges placing “our Down’s son” Christopher in a residential care home – I do hope thinking about disability has moved on since the mid-1980s.
Ultimately, I’m not sure Lodge has had an interesting enough life to warrant a several-volume project. He’s an almost reassuringly dull chap; “The fact is that I am constitutionally monogamous,” he admits at one point. Although it was fun for me to see the genesis of novels like Paradise News, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for reading any more about why Lodge thinks his star faded starting in the 1990s. However, I’ll keep this on the shelf to go back to for some context when I finally get around to rereading Small World and Nice Work.
“there has been a downside to the Prize Culture which the Booker engendered. It has warped the evaluation of new fiction by measuring success as if it were a competitive sport.”
You might choose to read instead: Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to Be Born or John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – overall the better autobiography of a working-class, bookish lad.
The Parentations by Kate Mayfield
(Point Blank [Oneworld], March 29th)
Sisters Constance and Verity Fitzgerald have been alive for over 200 years. A green pool in Iceland, first discovered in 1783, gives them “extended mortality” so long as they take the occasional two-week nap and only swallow two drops of the liquid at a time. In London in 2015, they eat a hearty stew by candlelight and wait for their boy to come. Then they try the churchyard: dead or alive, they are desperate to have him back. Meanwhile, Clovis Fowler is concealing extra phials of the elixir from her husband, their son and the maid. What’s going on here? We go back to Iceland in 1783 to see how the magic pool was first found, and then hop across to 1783 London to meet the sisters as children.
I read the first 67 pages, continued skimming to page 260, and then gave up. At well past the one-third point, the novel still hasn’t established basic connections. A book of nearly 500 pages has to hook the reader in sooner and more securely, not lull them with wordiness (case in point: on the first page of the first chapter, the adjective “macilent” – I looked it up and it means thin or lean, either of which would have been a far preferable word to use).
I could see faint echoes here of so many great books – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Discovery of Witches, Slade House, The Essex Serpent; works by Hannah Kent and Diane Setterfield, maybe even Matt Haig? I liked Mayfield’s memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter and had hoped for improvement with this debut novel. As it is, The Parentations has an interesting premise and lineage, but doesn’t deliver.
“His rage foments a decision. He will either take his place in the mounds of the dead, or he will find a good reason to stay alive.”
“Francis and Averil Lawless have impressed upon their daughters the concept of the consequences of a single moment, and there is no better teacher than the river’s majesty and its demand for respect for its waters, which can easily bring violence and ruin as well as wealth and peace.”
You might choose to read instead: Any of the literary fantasy novels listed above.
What books have disappointed or defeated you lately?
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #2
The first thing to note about a novel with “Conversations” in the title is that there are no quotation marks denoting speech. In a book so saturated with in-person chats, telephone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, the lack of speech marks reflects the swirl of voices in twenty-one-year-old Frances’ head; thought and dialogue run together. This is a work in which communication is a constant struggle but words have lasting significance.
It’s the summer between years at uni in Dublin, and Frances is interning at a literary agency and collaborating with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi on spoken word poetry events. She’s the ideas person, and Bobbi brings her words to life. At an open mic night they meet Melissa, an essayist and photographer in her mid-thirties who wants to profile the girls. She invites them back for a drink and Frances, who is from a slightly rough background – divorced parents and an alcoholic father who can’t be relied on to send her allowance – is dazzled by the apparent wealth of Melissa and her handsome actor husband, Nick. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, and before too long Frances falls for Nick. The stage is set for some serious amorous complications over the next six months or so.
Young woman and older, married man: it may seem like a cliché, but Sally Rooney is doing a lot more here than just showing us an affair. For one thing, this is a coming of age in the truest sense: Frances, forced into independence for the first time, is figuring out who she is as she goes along and in the meantime has to play roles and position herself in relation to other people:
At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.
I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot.
What will be her rock in the uncertainty? She can’t count on her parents; she alienates Bobbi as often as not; she reads the Gospels out of curiosity but finds no particular solace in religion. Her other challenge is coping with the chronic pain of a gynecological condition. More than anything else, this brings home to her the disappointing nature of real life:
I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.
Rooney writes in a sort of style-less style that slips right down. There’s a flatness to Frances’ demeanor: she’s always described as “cold” and has trouble expressing her emotions. I recognized the introvert’s risk of coming across as aloof. Before I started this I worried that I’d fail to connect to a novel about experiences so different from mine. I was quite the strait-laced teen and married at 23, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to Frances and Bobbi’s ‘wildness’. But this is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing that you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering that sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality.
With its prominent dialogue and discrete scenes, I saw the book functioning like a minimalist play, and I could also imagine it working as an on-location television miniseries. In some ways the dynamic between Frances and Bobbi mirrors that between the main characters in Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, Friendship by Emily Gould, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker, so if you enjoyed any of those I highly recommend this, too. Rooney really captures the angst of youth:
You’re twenty-one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.
This is a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did. Rooney is a tremendous talent whose career we’ll have the privilege to watch unfolding. I’ve told the shadow panel that if we decide our focus is on the “Young” in Young Writer, there’s no doubt that this nails the zeitgeist and should win.
Reviews of Conversations with Friends:
From the shadow panel:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks
I have way too much to say about this terrific debut novel, and there’s every danger of me slipping into plot summary because, though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. So I’m going to adapt a format that has worked well for other bloggers (e.g. Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and pull out four reasons why you must be sure not to miss this book.
- Bosom Friends. Have you ever had, or longed for, what Anne Shirley calls a “bosom friend”? If so, you’ll love watching the friendship develop between narrator Sharon Kisses and her business partner, Mel Vaught. In many ways they are opposites. Lanky, blonde Mel is a loud, charismatic lesbian who uses drugs and alcohol to fuel a manic pace of life. She’s the life of every party. Sharon, on the other hand, is a curvy brunette and neurotic introvert who’s always falling in love with men but never achieving real relationships. They meet in Professor McIntosh’s Introduction to Sketch class at a small college and a decade later are still working together. They win acclaim for their first full-length animated feature, Nashville Combat, based on Mel’s dysfunctional upbringing in the Central Florida swamps. But they see each other through some really low lows, too, like the death of Mel’s mother and Sharon’s punishing recovery from a stroke at the age of 32.
She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.
- The Value of Work. Kayla Rae Whitaker was inspired by her childhood obsession with dark, quirky cartoons like Beavis and Butthead and Ren and Stimpy. Books about artists sometimes present the work as magically fully-formed, rather than showing the arduous process behind it. Here, though, you track Mel and Sharon’s next film from a set of rough sketches in a secret notebook to a polished comic, following it through storyboarding, filling-in and final edits. It’s a year of all-nighters, poor diet and substance abuse. But work – especially the autobiographical projects these characters create – is also saving. Even when it seems the well has run dry, creativity always resurges. I also appreciated how the novel contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.
The work will always be with you, will come back to you if it leaves, and you will return to it to find that you have, in fact, gotten better, gotten sharper. It happens to you while you are asleep inside.
- Road Trips and Rednecks. I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two. First there’s the drive down to Florida for Mel to identify her mother, and then there’s Sharon’s sheepish return to her hometown of Faulkner, Kentucky. Here’s where the book really takes off. The sharp, sassy dialogue sparkles throughout, but the scenes with Sharon’s mom and sister are particularly hilarious. What’s more, the contrast between the American heartland and the flashy New York City life Mel and Sharon have built works brilliantly. Although in the Kentucky section Whitaker portrays some obese Americans you’d be tempted to call white trash, she never resorts to cruel hillbilly stereotypes. The author herself is from rural eastern Kentucky and paints the place in a tender light. She even makes Louisville – where the friends go to meet up with Sharon’s old neighbor and first crush, Teddy Caudill – sound like quite an appealing tourist destination!
I used it to hate it here. How could I have possibly hated this? This is me. I sprang from this place.
- Open Your Trunk. This is a mantra arising from Mel and Sharon’s second movie, Irrefutable Love, which is autobiographical for Sharon this time – revolving around a traumatic incident from her shared past with Teddy, her string of crushes, and her stroke recovery. One powerful message of the novel is that you can’t move on in life unless you confront the crap that’s happened to you. As humorous as it is, it’s also a weighty book in this respect. It has three pivot points, moments so grim and surprising that I could hardly believe Whitaker dared to put them in. (The first is Sharon’s stroke; the others I won’t spoil.) This means the ending is not the super-happy one I might have wanted, but it’s realistic.
Anything that makes you in that way, anything that makes you hurt and hungry in that way, is worth investigating. … When you take the things that happen to you, the things that make you who are, and you use them, you own them.
I thought the timeline could be a little tighter and the novel was unnecessarily crass in places. For me, the road trips were the best bits and the rest never quite matched up. But this is still bound to be one of my top novels of the year. I think every reader will see him/herself in Sharon, and we all know a Mel; for some it might be the other way around. Like A Little Life and even The Essex Serpent, this asks how friendship and work can carry us through. Meanwhile, the cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy.
An early favorite for 2017. Don’t miss it.
The Animators was published by Random House and Scribe UK on January 31st. My thanks to Sophie Leeds of Scribe for sending a free copy for review.
I paid my 40 pence and waited in what felt like an endless holds queue to get my hands on a public library copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. For months I’d been eager to try out this literary phenomenon in translation. I read about the first 100 pages and then my interest started to tail off. Aware of the impending due date, I skimmed the rest – so this doesn’t count towards my year’s reading list.
What went wrong? I didn’t dislike the book; in fact, I found it to be an accomplished psychological study of a female friendship and how it changes over time. Yet there were some factors that kept me at a distance. I’ll give a quick synopsis before listing pros and cons.
Elena, in her sixties, gets a call from the son of her childhood best friend, Lila. His mother and all her possessions have vanished from her home. Elena recalls Lila’s longtime desire to disappear without a trace, and decides she won’t let her: she sits down to her computer to write the story of their friendship, a bulwark against failing memory and deliberate sabotage.
From here Elena, a novelist in her own right (often assumed to be an autobiographical stand-in for Ferrante), returns to the girls’ childhood in 1940s and 1950s Naples, a place of organized crime, domestic violence, and what seems like surprising social backwardness. Neapolitan dialect contrasts with educated Italian. Lila and Elena have a low-key academic rivalry until Lila has to quit school to help her father, a shoemaker. Even then Lila finds ways to show her friend up, maxing out her whole family’s library cards and learning Latin and Greek on her own time. Lila is always one step ahead of Elena, whether in her studies or in attracting boys’ attention. This volume concludes with Lila’s wedding at the age of 16.
What I Loved:
- The psychological acuity Ferrante brings to the relationship between Elena and Lila. Their friendship has a shifting dynamic, vacillating between jealousy and support as they move from childhood through puberty. The novel powerfully captures Elena’s hesitation and Lila’s brazenness, often in piercing one-liners:
she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.
In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, like a salted anchovy, she gave off an odor of wildness
Lila acted … on me like a demanding ghost
only what Lila touched became important.
- The choice between education and a trade. Money and class have a lot to do with it, but both girls long for a Woolfian “room of one’s own” and even talk of writing novels together one day. Although Lila finds fulfillment designing shoes, it’s plain she envies Elena’s chance to complete high school. “My brilliant friend” is what Lila calls Elena late on in the novel, but it’s what Elena has always thought of Lila too.
- The Naples setting: Don Achille’s murder; setting off fireworks on New Year’s; the sense that the community is on the up and up when someone they know publishes a book. A few of my favorite lines describe the girls’ neighborhood:
We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed toward the Carraccis and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets.
What I Struggled with:
- A lack of context. Footnotes would have been intrusive, but perhaps a short introduction from the translator or an English-language critic could have helped set the scene and given some sociological details that would aid in my understanding of mid-twentieth-century Italy. Even just within the first chapter of Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson, a memoir I’m currently reading, there’s more basic information about Italy to help orient foreigners.
- The confusing names. The central characters are known by multiple names – for example, Lila’s full name is Raffaella Cerullo – and nicknames aren’t always intuitive; it reminded me of the variations in War & Peace. Thank goodness for the three-page index of characters.
- Short shrift given to Elena’s odd relationship with her mother. I felt there was a lot more that could have been explored. Perhaps that is a matter for another volume.
- Repetition in the day to day, especially regarding Elena’s schooling. I wondered whether all four, or at least two, of the books might have been condensed into one 400-page novel.
- Minor punctuation and translation issues. I only marked out one passage that sounded false to my ear (“I’ve kept a place for you.” / “Go away, my mother has understood everything.”), but the punctuation drove me a little nutty. I dislike lots of phrases being strung together with commas – as in the anchovy sentence above; I always look for a semicolon!
In general, I avoid series fiction. I hate being saddled with a sense of obligation, and I don’t like feeling that a story is unfinished. That doesn’t mean a book’s last pages can’t be open-ended, but I’d prefer to imagine my own future for the characters rather than have to read about it in another book or three or 14. While I seriously doubt I will pick up another of the Neapolitan novels, I could possibly be persuaded to pick up one of her stand-alone novellas. Naomi at Consumed by Ink wrote a very appealing review of The Lost Daughter, for instance. Although this long-awaited literary experiment was a touch disappointing, I’m still eager to try another model of “autofiction” in translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Further reading: Meghan O’Rourke’s 2014 Guardian article about Elena Ferrante’s growing popularity and mysterious persona.