Three-hundred-thirty-one pages, published by Europa Editions
I kept walking past this book at Chapters and picking it up to scan. I was taken by the title and intrigued by the synopsis. I was going to make it my book club pick when another member beat me to it.
All the online reviews call it a masterpiece. I think the publisher called it that and everyone jumped on board. While it’s definitely an excellent read and worth savoring some carefully crafted passages, I would say “masterpiece” is an indulgence. Having said that, once you pass the mid-point of the novel, the first of a trilogy, you’ll have trouble putting it down until you’ve finished it. But first, you have to get there.
The first half is slow and explanative, building each character’s profile and motivation. There’s a reason there’s a cast of characters listed at the front of the book, it reads like a soap opera. You must keep track of everyone, who they’re related to and whom they like.
The book opens when the two main characters are in their 60s. Elena receives a phone call informing her Lila appears to have gone missing on purpose. The narrator Elena, now a successful author, recounts their story. Elena and Lilia are two poor young girls growing up in dirty and brutal Naples in the 1950s. They form an unlikely bond that ebbs and flows. They grow up, the world around them changes and they’re forced into separate pursuits. Theirs is a pseudo-friendship based at times on jealousy, love, admiration, necessity and rivalry. In other words, it’s complicated.
The first novel (and I haven’t read the other three) begins before the girls are school-age and already daring each other and using violence in their endeavours and ends at the teenage wedding of one. Lilia is beautiful, brilliant and creative. She’s envied. Her intelligence surpasses that of her classmates but she’s denied an education. Short and plump Elena is smart but works hard to be Lila’s equal, yet real opportunity never befalls Lilia the way it does Elena.
Boys and relationships with them take centre stage as the girls mature. Elena and Lilia measure their intellect against them and seek to be with them as a sign of their success and popularity. Lila uses her will and talent to try to design a way out of her lot. Just when it seems she’ll be victorious, it all comes crashing down on the day that’s supposed to be one of her happiest.
Ferrante made me feel the betrayal and stinging rage Lila feels in the final pages. Her words are prose. However, from time to time, the translation from Italian was wordy and sentence structures convoluted. The book ends on a cliff hanger that makes you want to pick up the next book in the series.