Tag Archives: literary fiction

The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante – Books 2, 3 and 4

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.

“Home: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

This book covers the same time period and follows the same characters as the author’s Gilead, which I wrote about on May 16, 2016. Same story, different perspective, but Robinson managed, once again, to surprise me.

The Boughton family has eight children. The sons receive the names of family and friends, but the daughters are named for theological concepts – Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory. Big message right there – men and women fill very different roles in life. Seven of the Boughton children fulfill their loving parents’ expectations and grow into responsible, productive and apparently happy adults.

But then there’s Jack… He never “fits in”, always defies expectations. He fathers a child out of wedlock, and leaves, abandoning the child, the mother (still almost a child herself), his family and the community of Gilead. His father is grieved, angry and guilt stricken. He focuses intensely on Jack, who has almost no contact with the family.

At the start of the book, Jack comes home. Home is told from the perspective of Glory, the youngest daughter, who returns to Gilead in the early 1950s at age 38, to care for her aging father, just before Jack finally returns. Glory had worked as a high school teacher. Her personal life included a long, long engagement to a man she lately learned was married. At 38, she is a sad, thoughtful woman.

The question posed by this book is whether any redemption is possible for Jack. At the end of the book, Jack is still suffering. It’s less clear whether he still causes others to suffer.

Next I will read Lila; another perspective, I believe, on this Midwestern American version of the prodigal son. I’ve started to read Robinson’s essays. Stay tuned!

“My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One” by Elena Ferrante

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.

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

“The Summer House – a Trilogy” by Alice Thomas Ellis

I used to hang out with a group of radical feminists. For years, one of them read only books by and about women. In fact, she only talked about women. If the conversation drifted to a man/men/men’s actions, she remained silent. ALL her energy and attention was directed towards women.

The Summerhouse would have been just the book for my friend. It’s labeled “a trilogy”, but it does not consist of three stories in sequence. It’s the same story told three times, from the viewpoint of three different women of three different ages. Maiden, mother and crone, if you want to get psychological about it.

The Summer House was originally published in 1987, and the setting is a suburb of London, where nineteen year old Margaret is sleepwalking towards her wedding. Her betrothed is the son of a neighbor, and he is more than twice Margaret’s age. Something is seriously wrong with Margaret. (Something is wrong with everyone in this book – goodness, they are human…) At the climax of the book, on the appointed day, the wedding is cancelled. To me, the end of the first book was a very satisfying surprise. This first tale could stand nicely on its own, a short novel.

The next two versions of the story provide two additional perspectives and lots of juicy details.

Okay, it’s about a wedding, right? SO there had to be some men around? Yes, but they are very lightly sketched. Most visible was the intended bridegroom, who is not, apparently, disturbed by the fact that he barely knows Margaret. He assumes that under her very quiet exterior, she burns with passion (for him).

The other two women whose voices we hear are the bridegroom’s aged and unhappy mother (Mrs. Monro), and a friend of Margaret’s mother (Lili) who shows up for the wedding, having lived overseas most of her life. Lili is disruptive, unconventional and opportunistic, sort of a modern Sally Bowles. She recognizes that the impending marriage is wrong (doomed, damaging…) and throws a wrench into the works.

I can imagine this book being avidly discussed by book discussion groups (a mostly female activity by my observation)! For starters, who identifies with which narrator? Many moral issues are raised, sometimes by the behavior of men. Who was guilty, and of what? Who felt guilty?

I’m profoundly glad the publisher did not add “discussion questions” to the book! This is an unwelcome, recent intrusion (that I have encountered several times recently) and I hope it does not catch on.

“How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas Foster

This book is fun. If you enjoy fiction but wonder if you are “getting” it, or you want to upgrade to “literary” fiction or tackle some classics, you need this book. Foster describes reading as a game of “connect the dots” and offers suggestions for how to “get the picture” quicker.

Foster’s chapters tend to come in pairs. “Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion” is followed by “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires”. Who can resist?

The chapter entitled “Its All About Sex…” is followed by “…Except Sex”.

Breezy chapters cover Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales and Greek mythology.

In addition to frequent references to his favorite books, Foster provides an extensive reading list. If you are tired of what you can find in mall bookstores, this is helpful.

To me, the best chapter was “Don’t Read With Your Eyes”. He means, don’t read with your OWN eyes. You’ll miss a lot if you apply 21st century attitudes to Hamlet, for example. I tend to be rather literal minded, so I need that type of reminder.

I am planning to apply the “don’t read with your own eyes” logic to the work of non-fiction that will be the subject of my next blog entry. It was written around 1970. Not exactly the Dark Ages, but attitudes change quickly and by today’s standards it raises many red flags.

Foster wrote a second, equally lively, volume entitled How to Read Novels Like a Professor, and amazon.com carries a “for kids” edition. Foster deserves lots credit for enhancing people’s reading experiences at a time when so many distractions are available.

The importance of “literary fiction”

Recently an article turned up (sorry, I can’t cite it) that claims reading “literary fiction” will improve your “emotional intelligence”. I’m OK with “emotional intelligence”, but what is “literary fiction”?? For starters, it’s the recognized fine literature, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen – plays and books that deal with the complexity of human emotions – texts that get better on a second or fifth reading.

Can “literary fiction” be found in recent novels? I vote “yes”. Trying to think of an example, I came up Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. It’s a tale of journeys and transformation. By the end, I felt like I had traveled very far. More recently, I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Mesmerizing! She creates a microcosm and populates it with people so real, so detailed, you feel you know them like best friends.

Please let me know of books YOU would put into this category!