my contribution to The American Conservative 2015 books symposium

Beyond any question, the four volumes by Elena Ferrante commonly called the Neapolitan Quartet constituted the most powerful and memorable reading experience I had in 2015. That’s an opinion shared by many, it seems, but I have yet to see a review of, or essay on, the story — and it is a single story: Ferrante herself thinks of it as one novel in four volumes — that captures its depth and richness. Most critics assimilate the story to pre-existing categories: it gets called a portrait of female friendship, an exploration of the costs of a rigidly sexist culture, and the like. But no standard political or social framework is adequate to the subtlety of Ferrante’s portrayal of human lives, both in their day-to-dayness and in extremis; and one character in particular, Raffaella Cerullo, known to the narrator as Lila, a girl and then a woman by turns open and hidden, confident and fearful, brilliant and defeated, generous and cruel, completely evades any attempt at comprehension. (But since that narrator—Elena Greco, or Lenù—reveals Lila to us, and Lila’s life is always entangled with hers, it may be best to say that they make an unforgettable pair.) What, fundamentally, is the story about? Loves that are indistinguishable from hatreds; the compelling power and appalling narrowness of a intensely localized upbringing, and the disruption of both the power and the narrowness by technological modernity; the many paths and meanings of womanhood; the profound corruption of a society clinging to the merest shreds of religious habit when the living force of Christianity has departed. Or: life.