Elena Ferrante’s Blurred Lines
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban


The enormous attention to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—first the books published in the US between 2012 and 2015 and then the HBO series that has so far covered the first two titles, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—has obscured the fact that in Ferrante’s novelistic output as a whole, female friendship has not been a primary theme. The three intense and at times phantasmagorical novels she published before the Neapolitan quartet dealt with friendship almost not at all. Troubling Love (1992) is about the relationship between a middle-aged woman and her recently deceased mother; in The Days of Abandonment (2002) a mother of two young children is abruptly left by her husband; and while The Lost Daughter (2006) concerns two women who meet on a beach vacation, it has more to do with the narrator’s odd, impulsive theft of a doll beloved by the other woman’s daughter. Messy familial bonds have been the focus of Ferrante’s work: bonds between grown daughters and their mothers, mothers and their young children, and women and their husbands. She is interested in intimacy and betrayal, merging and separation, the peril of togetherness on the one hand and solitude on the other. Either losing oneself in another or remaining too distant can threaten the stability of her first-person, female narrators. Above all, in Ferrante’s novels, close relationships, whether hostile or loving, never truly end.

All three of Ferrante’s pre-quartet novels involve a small number of significant characters and take place in highly compressed periods of time. Troubling Love, the first, is the least accessible. The theme of merging and identity (Delia, the narrator, at times cannot even distinguish her face from her dead mother’s) is combined with prose in which imagination and reality are also merged, which creates confusion and claustrophobia for the reader. It’s a novel with many fascinations, and rewards repeat readings, but its impact is diffused by a kind of cloudiness. By the time she released her next novel, The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante had found a way to differentiate and clarify her different registers: Narrator Olga’s deranged grief never obscures the backdrop of “normal” life against which it takes place. The result is exhilarating, a portrait of a woman desperate not to break down after her husband’s callous betrayal, breaking down nonetheless, and eventually scraping herself back together again. (It is the only Ferrante novel that has a comic ending, in the traditional sense of the restoration of sanity and love.) The Lost Daughter is maybe Ferrante’s oddest novel, and it is the one she reports “made me feel most guilty…the writing dragged in unspeakable things.” The narrator’s bizarre behavior is never accounted for, leaving this reader, at least, uneasy and a little stunned. The Lost Daughter is a compelling fairy tale that doesn’t wrap up its loose ends, a parable that can’t be parsed. 

While these three books made Ferrante a respected and much-discussed author in her native Italy, it is not surprising that she didn’t become a global sensation until My Brilliant Friend and the subsequent volumes in the Neapolitan quartet (all translated into English by Ann Goldstein), the story of friends Lila and Lenù as they move from childhood through adolescence, adulthood, and finally, the beginnings of old age. In these four books, Ferrante vastly expanded both her cast of characters and the outward-facing elements of her storytelling. Now, instead of narratives taking place entirely inside of one apartment, or on one stretch of beach over a few days, there is a teeming world of shopkeepers and gas-station attendants and porters and cobblers, schools and universities, meat-processing plants, political protests, travel. Ferrante manages to maintain the deep interiority of her characters while giving them a much larger canvas for their activities. As many readers have noticed, the area in Naples where many of those characters grow up, only ever identified as “the neighborhood,” has a vivid force.

The other thing the Neapolitan quartet has going for it, commercially speaking, is Lila, one of the most compelling characters to appear in contemporary fiction. Lenù narrates the novels, and one of the first things she tells us about Lila is this: “Lila appeared in my life in first grade and impressed me because she was very bad.” Lila is disobedient at home and at school; she likes to play dangerous games; she resorts to violence as rapidly as the neighborhood boys do. She is also preternaturally intelligent, teaching herself to read at the age of three. When Lenù, a more cautious and rule-abiding girl who until now has been considered the star of their school class, discovers this, she is startled and provoked. It is the beginning of a lifelong competition between the two, punctuated by periods of collaboration.

Lila is a changeling. A childhood ragamuffin, all dirty face and scabbed knees, she becomes a beautiful and stylish teenage bride, then a downtrodden factory worker, and finally a successful computer programmer. Her emotional life is even more protean: She can be deeply affectionate and extraordinarily generous as well as cruel and demeaning. Both before and after her marriage she fascinates the boys and young men of the neighborhood, and the ones she’s treated the most viciously are the most hopelessly taken by her. She is determined to answer to no one but herself, and this determination forms part of the suspense of the quartet: Can she get away with it? Can any woman, even the most fearless, avoid being subdued by men and by corrupt (male-dominated) politico-economic systems? Just as many of the male characters in the novel are drawn both to adore and master Lila, many readers can’t look away from the spectacle that she is: her ferocity, her intellect, her life force.

But Lila is no mere symbol of female resistance and power. As we get to know her more thoroughly we learn that she is not entirely fearless. In fact, she is vulnerable to terrors that disable her. Lila’s weaknesses—her trepidations, her miscalculations (such as her marriage to a wealthy grocer’s son at sixteen)—humanize her and cause her, like all robust fictional creations, to seem capable of infinite nuance and possibility. From time to time, we eventually learn, Lila experiences attacks in which the firm outlines of the objects around her appear to soften and her world collapses into an undifferentiated primeval ooze. She is maddened, beside herself—or more accurately, without a self—during these episodes, which she calls “dissolving margins” or “dissolving boundaries.”

In writing this malady of Lila’s into the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante made explicit a theme that had appeared more sotto voce in her earlier fiction. While secretive about her identity, the pseudonymous Ferrante has been voluble about her work in interviews and letters, and has helpfully indicated her deepest preoccupations, which she summarizes with the term frantumaglia—another version of “dissolving boundaries.” She claims that frantumaglia is a word in Neapolitan dialect that her mother employed “to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments…. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable… the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.” This definition appears in a collection of Ferrante’s interviews and correspondence titled, in fact, Frantumaglia. It appeared in Italian after the publication of Ferrante’s first two novels, was later expanded, and in 2016 was translated into English with added material covering the Neapolitan quartet. Frantumaglia is a wonderfully stimulating book for any writer of fiction, as well as for any reader of Ferrante, and its existence couldn’t make it any clearer that “disquiet not otherwise definable” is the deepest substratum of Ferrante’s fictional project. In one of the selections, in a discussion of Olga’s breakdown in The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante says that frantumaglia is “a vortex-like fracturing of material living and dead,” and adds that she herself sometimes suffers from this “illness.” In another interview, she reports, “I know what it means to break apart.”

When I came across The Ferrante Letters, a work by four academics on the Neapolitan quartet, I was thrilled to discover that others were writing about this secret engine, as I saw it, of Ferrante’s fiction, the powering element occasionally noted but always shortchanged by Ferrante reviewers in the mainstream press. Or at least this is how I remembered my reaction, shortly before I sat down to write this essay.

Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards came together in 2015 to see what kind of scholarly work might result from a collective project on a contemporary author. Several were considered before the group settled on Ferrante. The four decided that they would each read one volume of the quartet per month and then write a letter about it to the others. The aim was to produce solid, probing literary criticism that had the feeling of an ongoing conversation rather than an academic-journal offering, focused on process as much as final result—which, according to the Letters’ introduction, would merely “make visible the slow, fractured, and creative accretion of ideas that underwrites all acts of criticism, both inside and outside the academy.” Personal material would not be verboten. The contributors hoped there would be “shared pleasure.” The results were published in the online scholarly journal Post45 and generated enough enthusiasm (and apparently shared pleasure) that three years later, each author wrote a full-length essay based on ideas developed during the exchange. These plus the original correspondence make up the main body of The Ferrante Letters.

In the introduction, the only portion written using the first-person plural pronoun we, Chihaya et al. describe the concerns they had about working together. Most simply, collective or collaborative (not to mention conversational and personal) criticism is neither common nor encouraged in the academy, and possibly all four of these youngish authors had concerns about their promotion prospects. They wondered if, in fact, their model would be workable. As one of them later explains in a letter: “What if we all came up with the same ideas? How would we distinguish our voices as writers?” They were wary of any idealized hopes of frictionless communion, and report that the introduction, the last part of the book to be written, was a challenge, given its “falsely single voice.” 

The Ferrante Letters is extremely absorbing. It’s rare to come across university-nurtured criticism, informed by theory, that is jargon-free and studded with insight. The language of academic work often hides the fact that authors have very little that is new or even sensible to say; here, in graceful and utterly lucid prose, the authors reveal how very much they have to offer. Among topics discussed in their relation to the Neapolitan quartet: fairy tales, queerness, ultraleft politics, pregnancy and motherhood, authorship, anonymity, prose style, setting, and fan fiction. I could clearly see the ways in which one author took an insight in another’s letter and brought it to flower; this is indeed criticism developed collectively. And yet each contributor has a distinctive voice and unique preoccupations. A couple of them raise a question I have been thinking about for years: Why is it that so many of us are so crazy about Ferrante? What is it that she does in her fiction that is so thrilling, even addictive, and meaningful? (I know a psychotherapist who says her clients talk about the books during their sessions.) I have asked readers what about the quartet captures them. The most common answers they give are: “the honesty about female friendship,” “the sense of place,” “the sense of women’s strength and resilience,” and—most common of all—“the books feel like real life.” In her Letters essay, “Unform,” Chihaya floats other possible answers (plottiness, identification with one or the other of the Lenù/Lila dyad), but she doesn’t feel they explain enough, and the ones I’ve heard don’t either. Any number of novels have a strong sense of place, or deal with women’s strength and resilience. What they don’t have, Chihaya suggests, is the constant, almost overwhelming sense of panic, danger, and incipient breakdown that Ferrante’s novels do.

That element was always there in the earlier books: in Troubling Love, Delia’s creepy merging with her mother and her experience of Naples as an invading, polluting force; in The Days of Abandonment, Olga’s mental disintegration and immurement in an apartment whose front door for mysterious reasons will no longer open; in The Lost Daughter, Leda’s irrational and cruel behavior toward a child and her bizarre, erotic fixation on that child’s doll. The books are filled with sudden violent acts by or against the protagonists, moments where rage violates decorum and sometimes the flesh itself (violence, in Ferrante’s work, is almost always accomplished by a sharpened instrument: a knife, a letter opener, a hat pin). In the Neapolitan quartet, the permeability between Lila and Lenù is a constant—each appropriates qualities from the other, tries to replicate the other’s experiences, tries to live through her.

The quartet is, as we learn in its first pages, Lenù’s written narrative of the sixty-year relationship between her and her friend, after Lila disappears without a trace from her Naples apartment. Writing is at the center of the quartet; Lenù becomes a novelist, and she believes that all of her work has as its core a small book, called The Blue Fairy, that Lila wrote when they were children. Is Lenù’s work her own, then, or is it really Lila’s? To write the quartet, Lenù relies on her memories of Lila’s diaries, which she has since destroyed. Is she rescuing Lila from obscurity, or is she appropriating her story, “overwriting” her, controlling her narrative? Personhood in Ferrante is murky; reality is never fixed and locked into place. Sometimes this merging between people or things can be experienced as ecstasy, but more often it is felt as a threat. The most extreme example of “dissolving margins” comes in the final book of the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, when Lenù and Lila, both pregnant, are together during the Naples earthquake of 1980. They try to get inside a car driven by Marcello, another major figure in the novels, but Lila panics. “Gasping for breath she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh.”

Afterward, Lila tells Lenù for the first time about her malady, though she has experienced it since childhood. She elaborates: 

She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that…. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted; if she became distracted … she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines… . And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber. 

What Lila describes is the energy that drives the quartet and Ferrante’s other work: the energy of chaos and terror. It may at times be externalized into the sudden disruption of a natural disaster, the violence of the Neapolitan Camorra (crime syndicate), or simply the everyday cruelties between people who know how to hurt each other. But even when there is no outside form to embody it, it is there, intimately connected to horror and disgust. It is the frantumaglia, or what Ferrante in some of her interviews has also called the “magma.” “Every interior state,” she remarks, “is, ultimately, a magma that clashes with self-control, and it’s that magma we have to describe, if we want the page to have energy.” It is this, I think, that Ferrante’s readers are getting at when they say the books “feel like real life.” Ferrante captures how regression to childhood terrors, the magma of existential threat, the ambiguities of our circumstances, and the shape-shifting of those we depend upon all rupture our equilibrium. Life feels this way; most books do not, at least not quite so much. 

In her “Unform” essay, Sarah Chihaya argues that what draws us irresistibly to the Neapolitan quartet is its ability to re-create an experience, both titillating and disturbing, of “the vast, seething unknowability of the real real that strains to break through…artificial constraints, the irrepressible and irresistible disorder…that churns under the shaky scaffolding of the knowable or sayable. To me, it becomes increasingly clear that the dangerous height of my pleasure in reading Ferrante is the feeling that she, and we with her, are on the cusp of disintegration of the safely contained forms of fiction and of life.” Chihaya, like Ferrante, falls back on marvelously personal and visceral imagery to express this unsayable, this pleasure/displeasure:

My argument feels to me like…that forced collaboration of surface tension and willpower when I strain to keep tears standing in the eye from falling. It feels like turning my ankle on a broken pavement and not knowing if I will tumble into traffic. Like the warm pluck in the gut that says a late period might be about to start…Like the horribly delicious instant in a fight when I know I am about to say something that cannot ever be taken back.

I’ve mentioned that as I readied myself to write this essay, I recalled feeling pleased that The Ferrante Letters was articulating something I had gleaned in Ferrante’s work and found underdiscussed. But as I reviewed my notes, I became uncertain. Had I in fact been focused on the idea of form/fragmentation before reading The Ferrante Letters, or was it the book that made me see how central that notion was? The thoughts in my mind, which I’d flattered myself were my own, became tainted. My uncertainty mimicked the issues that the authors of The Ferrante Letters themselves grappled with—what’s mine? what’s yours?—as well as the lack of distinction between Lila and Lenù’s own writing. Apparently, Ferrante draws in some readers so deeply that they can’t disentangle themselves from the narrative; this entanglement infected The Ferrante Letters contributors, and then, as I engaged with the latter, me as well. 

This uncomfortable instability may also account for why, as far as I can tell, there are very few male readers of Ferrante’s fiction, at least in the United States. When I was polling Ferrante readers about what drew them to her work, I realized I didn’t know a single man who had read her. I networked outward, asking friends if they knew any guy fans. One responded: “It would be faster to find a COVID vaccine.” Here again there are some obvious reasons that present themselves. The books are about women and narrated by women. (The old truism: Women will read about men, but not the reverse.) They show women acting on their rage, behaving cruelly to men, other women, and children; they feature women engaging in sex with men for many reasons other than passion or even affection, and describe this sex in ways often very unflattering to men. Perhaps male readers are turned off by the incessant self-observation the narrators perform, which strikes me as very female. But again, it is frantumaglia that may give us the most profound answer. Fear of merging and dissolution is universal, but women, denied certain kinds of defenses, are more familiar with its dreadful touch. To adapt and get by, inside or outside of marriage, women—those generators of the repellant clots of menstrual blood Lila sees in her fugue states—often have to “let others in”: their emotions, their needs, their troubles. They more often know what it is like to be powerless—and have learned that powerlessness is unpleasant but survivable (usually). Men, by contrast, tend to harden themselves in response to the hazards of vulnerability, softness, and breaking down; at the extreme, they use violence to keep those traits safely identified with the women in their lives. In literature written by men, what is messy, weak, chaotic, or contaminated is often displaced onto the female characters. Think of all those vindictive, untrustworthy, hysterical ex-wives in Saul Bellow’s novels. Think of Henry Miller, John Updike, Philip Roth. Granted, more contemporary male writers seem less prone to this kind of bifurcation. Yet apparently men would still rather not read about protagonists who are constantly blending into each other, breakdowns attendant upon the loss of love, or the chronic anxiety of trying to keep one’s boundaries in place. Toward the end of The Days of Abandonment, Olga accuses her ex of being unable to fall into the abyss as she did: When he began to feel the absence of meaning in their marriage, he “plugged up the hole” with Carla, his lover. She allowed herself to plunge. 

The Lying Life of Adults is the first novel Ferrante has published since the completion of the Neapolitan quartet. When an author has penned a masterpiece, one naturally approaches the next book with trepidation. Is there any possibility it can measure up?

To my astonishment, the answer initially seemed to be yes. Lying Life starts out with one of those remarkable Ferrante openings: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” Twelve-year-old Giovanna, unlike the narrators of Ferrante’s previous novels, has been born not into poverty but the educated Neapolitan middle class. Her father—who did escape poverty—is an academic, her mother a teacher. An only child, Giovanna is treated with respect, love, and affection, taught early about the birds and the bees, encouraged to approach life using reason. 

It turns out that what the father has actually said is that Giovanna “is getting the face of Vittoria.” Vittoria is his estranged sister, a bogeyman to the family, described by Giovanna’s parents as an envious, vindictive woman who would be happy to see her brother dead. The father could not have said anything about Giovanna more devastating. Again we have the danger of blurred boundaries: Giovanna now believes she may literally be turning into her aunt. Hoping to reassure herself, she insists on meeting Vittoria, who still lives in the poorer part of Naples. The rest of the book describes Giovanna’s oscillation between Vittoria’s milieu and life with her parents. In the process, a longtime affair between Giovanna’s father and the wife of his best friend is inadvertently revealed. Giovanna’s idolization of her father is destroyed, and she comes to see deception in the words and acts of all of the adults around her.

Vittoria in the novel functions rather the way Don Achille, the neighborhood mob boss of Lila and Lenù’s childhood, does in My Brilliant Friend: as a figure of embodied malevolence. Ferrante has always been a master of the uncanny, of deploying objects and characters in ways that provoke almost intolerable unease and fear. The uncanny is in the dolls that Lenù and Lila play with and then drop into the blackness of Don Achille’s cellar, in Lenù’s mother’s limp, in the relentless presence of the Solara brothers, who take over as local power brokers after Don Achille is murdered. It’s in the apartment door that won’t let Olga out in The Days of Abandonment and in the mysterious poisoning of her dog. It’s in Lila’s entire character, the menace that trails her like a perfume. 

The problem in Lying Life is that Vittoria becomes a real person to Giovanna and, more importantly, to us. She is difficult, histrionic, and sometimes malicious, but the uncanniness gradually leaches out of her. She is not really a threat, and it’s hard to understand how Giovanna’s father could have ever believed her to be one. She is poor and lonely; she alienates those who want to care for her. The father has projected his own unsavory qualities onto her, and once we know that, her unearthly force is gone.

Without the uncanny, and without frantumaglia, Lying Life eventually coalesces into an interesting and psychologically acute but somewhat unmemorable account of adolescent awakening. The process by which someone morphs from a phantasm into a fellow human being, complete with virtues and flaws, is a story of universal significance and one that has at times been beautifully told. But Ferrante’s strength seems to be in showing how projections and strong emotions infiltrate us, not how we get clear of them. The rest of her oeuvre suggests that in any case we never can. There is a bracelet in Lying Life that aspires to correspond to the dolls and doors and other charged objects of Ferrante’s previous work, but it never accumulates the potency it’s meant to. The novel does showcase Ferrante’s deftness with the two-sided act, the impulse of which it is impossible to fix the meaning. Does Giovanna, now sixteen, make a visit to a friend’s lover because she wants to help retrieve an irreplaceable possession the friend accidentally left with him? Or because she wants to betray that friend with the lover? Both, seemingly, just as in the quartet’s final volume, Lenù writes, gorgeously, that her mother, now dying, always “protected and crushed” her.

I read Lying Life twice to make sure I hadn’t shortchanged it, and the second time even the magic I’d initially felt through the first half had dissipated; I had already been taken behind the curtain. I was predisposed to Ferrante’s subject matter: At exactly the same age as Giovanna, I also discovered that my own educated, gentle, reasonable parents had a history of affairs and were splitting up. But while the novel is well observed and the prose is as energetic as always, I remained puzzled by the binary nature of Giovanna’s troubles. She swings between allegiance to her aunt’s world—noisy, rough, filled with explicit sexual desire and risk—and her parents’ more restrained, dignified, and equally untrustworthy one. But frantumaglia is what doesn’t fit any binary, the leftover element that pricks and troubles us. And it is not here. 

In “Unform,” Sarah Chihaya writes of the Neapolitan quartet that “the struggle of individual personhood here is a struggle to keep oneself on form, in form.” The observation made me wonder if this struggle may be the ur-plot of literary fiction, in which eventually, through various experiences and trials, the individual is solidified (or, if the tragic ending is preferred, shattered). Reading Ferrante reminds us that personhood is inherently fluid, blurred, and unstable, that the solidifying process of most fiction is a consoling myth. The Lying Life of Adults is an ingeniously constructed puzzle whose pieces click neatly into place at the end. I never genuinely feared for Giovanna’s sanity or prospects. She is a smart, educated girl who is already learning to surf the dishonesty and disorder around her, developing in the process quite a talent for lying herself. She’ll get along just fine. How disappointing. 

Share —
Published: December 3, 2020

Najeebah Al-Ghadban is a designer and collage artist from Kuwait based in New York. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Baffler, and the Atlantic magazines.