Review: Cynthia Zarin on Elena Ferrante

I first read Elena Ferrante in 2005, when the small and then little-known publisher Europa brought out Ann Goldstein’s transfixing translation of Days of Abandonment, a story about a woman who unravels when her husband leaves her. The narrative spirals down, down, down, trailing muck and broken glass, a record of debasement so precise it is almost impossible for the reader not to see a version of herself in those prismatic shards. Afterward, I read all of Ferrante’s books as they came out here: Troubling Love, in which the physical bond of filial love is carried to an extreme, then The Lost Daughter, a haunting tale of despair. And, of course, more recently, the best-selling Neapolitan Quartet, which opens with the beautifully controlled first volume, My Brilliant Friend, but ends, by the fourth volume, The Story of the Lost Child, in a kind of bathetic diminuendo—an Italian version of Marjorie Morningstar. Oh well, I thought, closing it.

In an interview with The Paris Review, in 2015, Elena Ferrante said
Anyone who puts writing at the center of his life ends up in the situation of Dencombe, in Henry James’s “The Middle Years,” who, about to die, at the peak of success, hopes to have one more opportunity to test himself and discover if he can do better than what he’s already done.
Are these Ferrante’s middle or late years? She has clung to anonymity (a parlor trick that has become less interesting and more irritating over time), so it’s impossible to know how many books are likely still to come, but I hope that she, like Dencombe, has another chance.

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The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante’s new novel (the title is a clunker in both English and Italian), falls short of her earlier work. When the book opens, Giovanna Tarda, a woman in her middle years, is looking back on the end of her spellbound childhood. The setting is, as with Ferrante’s previous books, Naples, but the Naples of the upper-middle classes, remote from the insalubrious sprawl of Italy’s persistently impoverished southern cities. Giovanna’s father, whom she adores, broke the spell himself: Giovanna overhears him saying to her mother that Giovanna is coming to resemble the father’s ugly, estranged sister, Vittoria, who lives down below (to Ferrante, Naples, like a Neapolitan pastry, comes in layers ), cleans houses, and, in the eyes of Giovanna’s parents, all but stirs a cauldron. From here on we’re looking in the mirror of a fractured fairy tale. Like most teenagers, Giovanna treats a mirror as an oracle. She sets out to meet her aunt to decode the mystery. There are few surprises for the reader: the visit to Vittoria is a journey to the underworld; Giovanna discovers that Vittoria is beautiful, bitter, and sexy. And, for good cause, she’s not too fond of her supercilious brother, who turned his back on his own family as he ascended Naples’ social ladder. (Class, and how easy it is to lose one’s footing, is a theme throughout Ferrante’s work—these missteps tied, often, to quasi-demonical sexual desire; in her books, women's lives, one way or another, are—yes, even now—defined by the men they take up with.) A sentimental education, Ferrante style.

Now Giovanna has a secret, and, newly adept at worming out hidden stories, she discovers her parents have secrets too. Her father is besotted with the wife of his closest friend; the friend’s husband fondles Giovanna’s mother’s foot under the table. Giovanna and her girlfriends discover sex by caressing each other and themselves; they move on, variously, to giving hand jobs to thuggish, unwashed boys who populate Vittoria’s scrappy world. For me—and I imagine for a few other readers as well—Giovanna’s account of these events reads like a version of my own hyperbolic, fib-filled teenage journal, messy with angry tears. (A friend of mine summed up this genre in a text as “Dear Me. I hate Mom. She’s a bitch.”) Ferrante’s gritty tableau includes a Prince Charming who quotes scripture and a bejeweled magic bracelet, given to Giovanna when she was born, by Vittoria—read, bad fairy—that shows up on the arm of her father’s pretty inamorata. Scenes from this sloppy book might be outtakes from the HBO version of My Brilliant Friend.

I miss the sly, sharp, elusive Ferrante I fell for, years before fame overtook her. In that same Paris Review interview, Ferrante said that she writes in order to be read. Mission accomplished. But at what cost?


Cynthia Zarin is the author of An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History, a book of essays, as well as five books of poetry, most recently OrbitShe is teaches at Yale University.


Book notes
The first volume of Barack Obama’s memoir has arrived in bookstores, and booksellers are sending out appeals to those who preordered to come pick it up quick, because at 750+ pages (written freehand on yellow legal pads, it seems!) the many copies are taking up a lot of space. Obama waited to publish it until after the election, but the election continues not to end and here he is! Best laid plans, eh? He will appear tomorrow night at the virtual awards ceremony for England’s Booker Prize, which actually (in what has become a somewhat groused-about habit of deference to the kids across the pond) moved itself so as not to conflict with his publication date. And, of course, he has released an accompanying playlist.

Tonight America’s National Book Awards Ceremony, which was not able to persuade the Booker Prize to step aside for it, will be virtual and open to the public; it’s usually a glittery family gathering of publishing people, as written up by us last year. We had fun sitting up in the bleachers with the ink-stained book press, back when one did such things. This will be the last ceremony of its young executive director, Lisa Lucas, who is leaving to become publisher at Pantheon and Schocken Books. Lucas inspired by reaching National Book Foundation’s long arms out to embrace hitherto underserved readers. Last June, just weeks into the George Floyd protests, she spearheaded the Black Artists for Freedom Juneteenth Statement.

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