Over the past year, I’ve discussed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a lot of women in my life. These conversations often settled on similar topics: the twisted and complex lifelong friendship between the main characters, Lila and Elena, and how it reminds us of friendships in our own lives; the richly drawn female characters and the terrible men that surround them; and the blending of emotional narrative and social commentary that made The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella call them “the most thoroughgoing feminist novels I have ever read” (plus, of course, how much we hate Nino).
But, knowing that women tend to adore the books, I have often wondered: What do men think about them? Specifically, men related to me? Seeking a new perspective, I decided to call up my dad — a 60-something Englishman who likes to read, although mainly about the Nazis and Ancient Rome — to hear what he thought about these novels that cast such a spell on me.
So dad, you recently finished the fourth book. What did you think of them?
I thought it was one of the best novels I’ve read since War and Peace. I thought it was on that scale. The way she integrated various subplots was just extraordinary. Every character was interesting. The astonishing portrait of a marriage, between Stefano and Lila. The astonishing portrait of a narcissist, with — what’s his name? — Nino. A charismatic narcissist who leaves a trail of destruction behind him. And I felt a wonderful sense of place as well. I just gobbled it up. This marvelous combination of a gripping yarn, great stories, great characters, a lot of suspense, and at the same time, the powerful analysis of social, political, and ethical environment in which they lived. The second one, where they spend the summer away, that was just amazing. That was the high spot for me. I found the fourth one a bit too difficult.
Why did you pick them up to begin with? I can imagine the covers, in particular, might not make them seem that appealing to some male readers.
I wouldn’t have, but people said to me that they were really outstanding.
How long did they take you to read?
I don’t know, I can’t even remember, we’ve only got three here — were there three or four?
Four. You didn’t forget to read one, did you?
No! No, I read them all. But we’ve only got three now. Your mother seems to have run off with one. I would say it took me a month or so. It was sophisticated without being obtuse. Very accessible. I started reading it not expecting to enjoy it very much, I thought it would probably be a women’s series of novels. But every character was so well-drawn. Enzo, this plodding, loyal, faithful supporter of Lila. And the relationship between the two girls was absolutely brilliant. And some of the smaller characters, like Nino’s father. The whole thing was just excellent.
You said you thought going in that it might be a woman’s novel. What do you mean by that? Because arguably, it is.
I’m not totally sure what I mean. I find that a lot of novels written by women I don’t really engage with the characters because I’m not very sensitive to or familiar with what they’re feeling, because it’s essentially a female thing. But here I didn’t feel any of that, I thought it was quite gender neutral, even though the protagonists were both women.
I don’t know if I agree with you. Elena and Lila were so limited by the expectations put on them by society.
Well I don’t know, because Lila broke out of that straitjacket. They both did.
But, I mean, Lila got married when she was 16, at which point she was expected to sacrifice all her passions and her ambitions to become a housewife. She was in an abusive relationship, she was raped on her wedding night. She has to juggle working and taking care of her children. So many of her struggles — of both their struggles — were born out of being a woman in this place and time. Did reading the books give you any insight into the female brain or female relationships?
Anna, I have no insight into the female brain, I never have, and I don’t think I ever will.
But do you know what I mean?
No. I don’t think I felt the book on that level at all. I thought it was an extremely gripping story. Like Balzac or Dickens or Tolstoy, with this cascade of characters.
Did you think the books were feminist novels?
No, I didn’t. If they had been I don’t think I’d have reacted as positively as I did.
You’re a feminist, aren’t you?
Well, I’d like to think I believe in equality of the genders. Does that make me a feminist?
Well, then, okay, I’m a feminist.
Do you read a lot of books by women or about women?
I wouldn’t say that I do. Not that I discriminate, I just read SPQR, a book by a female classics professor that’s the history of Rome. It’s the subject matter as much as the author. But to be fair, I don’t read many novels by women. Some I like. I liked A Thousands Acres by Jane Smiley, and I thought Donna Tartt’s Secret History was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. But some women write novels that you would feel are designed for a female audience, and I think those are difficult. I don’t think this was, not for a moment. I think this was meant to be a work on a grand scale. All human life is here. And that’s what was so compelling about it.
Have you read Knausgaard? A lot of people compare the two.
I read the first volume. I thought it was excellent, but my ADD got in the way. I just didn’t have the patience for it, it was too much. And you can draw the comparison. See, this I wanted to carry on with, it was a page-turner. I wanted to know what happened to these people. After a couple of hundred pages I rather lost interest in what happened to Mr. Knausgaard.