Recently, I was Tinder messaging with a manarchist type (white, bespectacled, etc.) whose profile read: “Looking for the wisdom of Alice Munro in the body of Joan Didion.” A reference to two women writers in one profile was encouraging, even if one of them had been reduced to a body. “What are you reading right now?” I finger-typed, a little excited. “Dave Eggers’s latest,” he replied. (Snooze.) I tried again: “I’m waiting for the new Elena Ferrante to come in the mail.” His response was instant: “I have nothing against girly books,” he wrote, adding thoughtfully, “at least that’s what the cover art suggests.” I stared into the app. “You’ve heard how they’re universally loved by critics?” He had not. “How she’s the literary master of our time?” No, he had only looked at them (the front covers) in bookstores. He was looking at one now, he told me, on the Internet. “The cover is a picture of a man and a woman walking hand in hand after being married, three little girls trailing behind them in pink dresses.”
I summoned my well-worn Ferrante sermon, I stampeded, I proselytized. When I finished the screen went quiet, then he asked if he could borrow one. “One of my Elenas?” But I already knew the answer. “I’m sorry, but I’m not ready for all that.”
Critics have praised Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series as singularly “magnificent,” “authentic,” and “one of the great achievements of modern literature,” and yet their covers make them look like cheap, mass-market romance novels, with the fourth and final volume in the series, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions, September 2015), easily the most egregious: two little girls in pink and blue fairy wings, waving wands as they sit on a beach and face the horizon. Maybe it’s a reference to the series’ central friendship, and a certain blue-fairy plotline. But the cover’s gauzy pastels do more to obscure the novel’s dark, intricate content than reveal it.
At a glance, the series’ four books suggest a conventional everywoman: heterosexual marriage, heterosexual romance, motherhood. The muted pastel-hued renderings draw on familiar visual tropes: the figures gaze toward horizons, or up at skies, or walk into a middle distance, invoking nostalgia and inviting the would-be reader to sentimentalize and sanctify traditional milestones of female existence. And though it is true that Ferrante explores motherhood and marriage, female friendship and heterosexual romance, the happiness supposedly attached to these tropes exists nowhere in these books. Instead, Ferrante explores canonical terrain—varieties of corrupt, impoverished, postwar Italian life explored in the neorealist films of Pasolini, Antonioni, and Rossellini, for example—from a woman’s point of view, infused with a diligent, and decidedly feminist, rage.
Ferrante takes us to the edge of bad feelings, the kind that we never want to admit to having—shame, jealousy, anger, malice, self-hatred—but she doesn’t leave us at that unbearable precipice. From the opening pages of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante takes those vividly explored experiences and feelings and gives them a political shape, universalizing them as a consequence of social and economic conditions. She describes a postwar, poverty-stricken Naples that has left the men listless and violent and rendered the women out of their minds with rage: “The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. … They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry they flew into a rage that had no end.” As if responding to the book’s covers, or to the Western art-historical sentimentalization of women’s interior lives, Elena Ferrante offers the startlingly honest voice of her protagonist, Elena Greco: “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” And later: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood. It was full of violence.” Growing up as a poor, disenfranchised child, Elena, who narrates all four of the books in the series, did not have the luxury of being a nice little girl. “Of course, I would have liked the nice manners that the teacher and the priest preached, but I felt that those ways were not suited to our neighborhood, even if you were a girl.” Perhaps she means especially if you were a girl.
Elena’s lifelong friendship with Lila Cerullo is the series’ most central and enduring theme, and yet none of the cover illustrations present an image of female friendship, save for those treacly fairies. Perhaps the picture of female friendship conveyed by the books—as exciting, crushing, and all-consuming as a torrid love affair—doesn’t make for marketable covers.
Even after Elena manages to transcend her surroundings and become a celebrated writer and public intellectual, the preoccupation of her life remains her friend Lila; she is alternately obsessed, enamored, enthralled and enraged with, and manipulated by her. In the third book, we are led to think that Elena has found true love with her childhood sweetheart, as visually explored in the misty cover image of a man and woman—arm in arm, he in a corduroy jacket, she in his sweater—clutching each other amorously and staring into the distance.
Ferrante thankfully disrupts that heterosexual fantasy in the most recent book, returning Elena to her hometown of Naples, where she ends up living in the same building with Lila, the only person in her life—her children, parents, and lovers—who consistently holds her interest; she is happy to be beguiled by Lila. And just when we might be tempted to think this significant, to inflate the concept of friendship between women with some heady sentiment, Ferrante reminds us that she didn’t write these books to make us feel better: “Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.”
Whether she meant to or not, Elena Ferrante has consoled me and almost all of my friends, mostly queer artists and writers, with the bliss of self-recognition. It’s as if this is the first time that many women I know are seeing their full selves on the page. When I posted a picture of my advance copy of The Story of the Lost Child on Facebook, I received a flurry of emails, texts, and comments from friends, pleading to get their hands on it. “It’s like Harry Potter,” one said, “but for feminists!”
No one mentioned the terrible cover image. In fact, I hadn’t given too much thought to the bad cover art until the Tinder encounter. When you’re desperate for the unique happiness that comes from seeing yourself reflected in a text, you don’t ask questions. You proselytize, you stampede, and you keep swiping.