Roman à clef by the reclusive author who writes under the name Elena Ferrante (The Lost Daughter, 2008, etc.): a beautifully written portrait of a sometimes difficult friendship.
Set, as is so much of her work, in her native Naples, Italy, Ferrante’s latest is a study in the possibility of triumph over disappointment. Its narrator, Elena Greco, is the daughter of a man who has managed by dint of hard work to rise only to the lowly position of porter at the city government building. Elena is brilliant, but less so than her friend Raffaella Cerullo, called—confusingly, for readers without Italian—Lila or Lina depending on who is talking. Both women, born in the year of liberation, 1944, are ambitious, whip-smart, as at home in the pages of Aristotle as in the hills of their still-battered city. Their native milieu is poor and barely literate, but both have emerged from it, despite the distractions afforded by the boys they like and the violence occasionally visited by those whom they don’t. Lina has always outpaced Elena in every way, not least intellectually; as Elena recalls, “I saw that after half a page of the philosophy textbook she was able to find surprising connections between Anaxagoras, the order that the intellect imposes on the chaos of things, and Mendeleev’s tables.” That chaos, in the first volume of the trilogy to which this volume belongs, swept Lina away from her ambitions toward a domesticity that seems almost arbitrary, while Elena, the very definition of a survivor, forged on. Lina, it appears, will always consider her the lesser of equals, someone who, Elena frets, “couldn’t even imagine that I might change.” Yet, as Ferrante recounts, it is late-blooming Elena whose turn it is to flourish, despite setbacks and false starts; this second book closes with her embarking on what promises to be a brilliant literary career and with the hint that true love may not be far behind.
Admirers of Ferrante’s work will eagerly await the third volume.