This is the fourth book by Ann Patchett that I have read, and I felt disappointed. Too “ordinary”. Patchett’s suburbia is a dull place. A man and woman fall in love and divorce their spouses in order to marry. He has four children, she has two. They constitute the “common wealth” of the title. All six children suffer.
I couldn’t help comparing this book with Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Each deals with children. In each case, events at a party are pivotal. Patchett describes a christening party that turns into a dark, ironic version of the Biblical story of loaves and fishes. A marriage is destroyed. Ferrante’s event is a wedding party, at which the groom betrays the bride, then rapes her.
In each tale, a child is lost. In Commonwealth the oldest of the six children dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. His confused siblings watch uncomprehendingly. Every parent’s nightmare. But the loss described in the last of the Neapolitan novels is even worse – a tiny girl disappears, from a bright street on a sunny day. She’s gone. Her death cannot even be confirmed. Foul play is suspected. Ferrante has a knack for dealing with the most harsh blows that life can inflict.
In each story, someone tells or publishes a story that “belongs” to another person, with disturbing repercussions. Elena (Ferrante gives her own name to her heroine) writes about her friend Lila’s factory employment, bringing down retribution and violence. One of the neglected daughters in Commonwealth tells her lover, a prominent author, about the tragic death of her older stepbrother. He appropriates the story but denies its origins. His book is made into a movie, causing terrible pain to the family.
In my earlier blog post about Ferrante, I described My Brilliant Friend as being worthy of the category of “literary fiction”. The rest of her quartet also meets that standard. Commonwealth, in my opinion, doesn’t make it. Too bad, because I would certainly include Patchett’s wonderful Bel Canto in that category, and I plan to continue to read her work.
See my blog entry of July 13 for comments on the first of these books, My Brilliant Friend.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels comprise a tetralogy, or quartet. My only other experience with a literary quartet is the magnificent Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet has been described as “sprawling”. I would say panoramic. The Neapolitan novels are intensely focused on one woman’s life, and within it, one intense friendship.
I read the three books that followed My Brilliant Friend (1300+ pages total!) in a fast and furious binge that took less than a month. Just couldn’t stop!
The Story of a New Name is about gender and relationships. Normally I’m not charitable towards authors who provide an index of characters. Clear and thoughtful writing should render that crutch unnecessary. But I forgive Ferrante because the complexity of her books, with their multitude of characters, reflects “real” life.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay continues the lives of Elena (the narrator) and her best friend Lila, as does Book 4, The Story of the Lost Child. Farrante doesn’t back off from shocking plot twists. The story continues until Elena is past age 60 and Lila has, apparently intentionally, disappeared, dropped out of sight.
What is stranger than a disappearance? In my long life, this has happened twice – two people, not “closest friends” but more than acquaintances, have disappeared – one almost 40 years ago, the other about 15 years ago. I have no intention of writing about them, or of seeking further information. But I cannot help being fascinated by Ferrante’s literary take on this.
One reviewer describes the Neapolitan novels as an “education in being female”. I recommend them to men on that basis. Very likely you will learn a great deal. Ferrante (whoever she is) is an author for the ages.
I couldn’t figure out how this book came to be on my Kindle. Sometimes I forget I’m not the only person using my account! Thanks, J, for spotting this wonderful novel, which was originally published in Italian.
What did I like about this book? I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I like authors who take childhood and children seriously. Ferrante never deviates from the point of view and story line of her heroine, who, in this book, is followed from about age 6 to 17.
What else? I decided to look up “literary fiction” to see if this book qualifies. Wikipedia tells me “literary fiction” has something more going on that just plot. It engages some important idea or concept. My Brilliant Friend deals with poverty, war, education (very interesting!), gender roles, social violence and other important issues, all within the framework of one life.
If I’m going to read “literary fiction”, I want to do it right… I consulted Thomas C Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor on the subject of symbolism. According to Foster, almost everything is a symbol, and most symbols carry both positive and negative connotations. (Foster was not so helpful as to list the symbolism of common objects.) One prominent symbol in in My Brilliant Friend is shoes. Speculating wildly, I would say that the shoes in My Brilliant Friend symbolize creativity, wealth and power. But fixing shoes (as one character does) symbolizes poverty and subservience.
So much for literary criticism…
“Elena Ferrante” does not exist. This is the pen name of a person who (despite international acclaim and major prizes) prefers to remain anonymous, and who has been quoted as saying “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Her publisher has respected her wishes. Speculation as to her identity is rampant and sometimes detailed. I, for one, am content to enjoy the books and let the author use whatever name she chooses.
I plan to read more by Elena Ferrante.