Italy's best-known contemporary author isn't actually known by anyone at all. Elena Ferrante has written almost a dozen pristinely constructed, gorgeously rendered novels full of difficult truths without ever revealing her true identity. Her most famous works are a series of four books called the Neapolitan novels, which center around the enduring friendship of two girls.
At over 1,600 pages in the English translation, the Neapolitan series deals with every topic a life can provide: from terrible marriages and lost children to brutally planned murders and mysterious legends. It's impossible to keep from getting lost in the world that Ferrante builds for her characters, because so often it feels like Italy as she portrays it from the 1950s through the turn of the century is built exactly for you.
The story is told by a narrator named Elena (nicknamed Lenu) who sets forth from page one that she's writing these words as a kind of ode to her oldest friend, Lila Cerullo, who has disappeared. Lenu begins their story when they met as children in a city outside Naples, and throughout the four books traces their friendship through marriages, separations, social class changes, and a world that evolves as rapidly as the friendship they've built.
As an artistic medium, the novel can be as versatile as the canvas. It can be used to depict hyperrealism, or push an agenda. It can be bent to break people's preconceived notions, or treated as a standard format that's not to be messed with. In 2015, the novel comes in many forms—the captivating plots of Jennifer Weiner, the lyricism of Toni Morrison, and the plotted brilliance of The Girl on the Train.
Ferrante's first novels are punchy—fast, short, and full of gut drops—but it's in this series with its sprawling story about country and people that she trades that punch for a slow and calculated bruise that lingers long after the series is over.
What's amazing about the Neapolitan series, though, is how many varied forms of the novel she manages to deploy. She is at times telling a straight narrative woven with imagery and honesty. Then, in a instant, she is using 100 pages (such as in book three) to dissect the inner life of a woman struggling to figure out who she is in a world that's so rapidly changing.
By the beginning of book four (which is released today), Lila and Lenu's lives have taken on completely separate stations. They have grown up, struggled, and created places for themselves in the world that—though physically proximate—couldn't be further apart. Lenu sees herself as an educated, cosmopolitan woman who is independent and forward-looking. Lenu sees Lila as cruel, and unchanging, stuck in a past she refuses to leave.
Lenu is not always a reliable narrator. It's impossible to know how much of what she says is true, and how much of what she remembers about her past is influenced by the present from which she tells the story. But Lenu's bias is what makes the Neapolitan series such a striking picture of female friendship. Because we, the reader, are never given access to Lila's thoughts and beliefs (except through a series of her journals which Lenu reads to us), we are able to experience their friendship in the full extent of its wickedness. Where but in a tightly bound relationship woven together with the entire history of a life and a city, Lenu seems to say, can we feel how truly isolating it is to be alone?
There is often a flatness to the way storytellers approach friendship and female friendship in particular. They are restrained to stories about self-definition, or worse, stories about friendships that only exist to push the protagonist forward in their mission. Even in a story with fully developed characters (a rarity in and of itself) there's a tendency to set the protagonist out on an island by themselves. Independence, these stories say, is what makes this character's struggle worth reading.
But we are not independent creatures. We fall in love. We fight. We bind ourselves so tightly to the needs and feelings of our best friend that we begin to make decisions outside of ourselves. A relationship at its best and at its worst isn't just enrapturing—it changes the way we view ourselves.
Lila and Lenu's relationship is not always healthy. They have secrets they tell each other, and secrets they don't, but they are also manipulative, cruel, and sometimes violent with each other. They can be both completely understanding of and compassionate towards the other's problems, and severely detached and withdrawn in a time of need. They are selfish. They are fury. They are real.
There are moments in book four that are expected, and those that completely surprise. But at the center of the fourth book is a central loss that pulls Lila further away from Lenu than ever before. Their friendship is stretched and pulled. Throughout the years they have built up a body of scars from the emotional cuts they've given each other, and Ferrante's ability to display their deep hate and deep love for one another at the same time is truly astounding.
It's these moments, because they are told through Lenu's eyes, that are stunning. In one section of book four (without giving anything away), Lenu can hear Lila having a screaming fight through the floor. She isn't present for this discussion, and she isn't even really sure what is being fought over. There's distress in this passage because Lila is upset, but also because Lenu has taught the reader through three books of narration that she wants their friendship to be one in which there is support and love and history without the cruelty and anger that entails. And we know, she knows, that she can't have that.
The books, though long, are never repetitive. They are structured and plotted to perfection, weaving their way through the misogyny and violence of Naples in the '50s, through the radical leftism of the '60s and '70s, and back into the depths of the Naples political arena in the '80s.
Like any great novelist, Ferrante understands that, like Lila and Lenu, the politics and the personal are so closely bound together that even when their relationship is unhealthy and abusive, they are impossible to break apart. The spaghetti of life and death, of rebellion and submission, of violence and love are so tangled together that they create a world that's not only believable, it's heartbreaking.
At the very center of this series is the question of identity. Elena Ferrante hasn't revealed hers. Lila is trying to erase herself while Lenu is trying to reconstruct herself. The girls grow into women, but still have to search around to find who they are and who they want to be.
The series doesn't end with answers. There is no tidy bow to wrap around a life of violence and misogyny and difficulty. But that's exactly how this series should end: not with the sudden realization of who we can be, but with the awful truth of who we are.
The fourth and final book in the Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child, is out today.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.