“Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything at the end consoles you.” (The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante)
If, as Ferrante intimates in the above quote, good novels are the ones that don’t hide in the extremes of character, morality, or causation, then her novel is good. She has written something cyclical and true, where the history of a whole life seems both monumental in its aspirations and meaningless in its lack of peace, understanding, or happiness. It is the story of a sometimes banal, sometimes insightful woman who cycles between the realization that she projects her best qualities on her friend and the knowledge that her friend’s brilliance is beyond her comprehension.
While Ferrante avoids her definition of a bad novel, artfully sidestepping blacks and whites, she doesn’t quite achieve the brilliance some of her passages suggest she’s capable of. Throughout, she hints at a better novel. One that isn’t so chronological, that doesn’t tie up loose ends with clichéd conclusions (even if they gain depth on each revisiting). One that doesn’t reduce old age to a resigned compliance with life or obscure deep truths with an over-abundance of words. In both naming her book ‘not bad’ and alluding to one that could be better, she places her own novel in that same in-between state as she does her characters: neither good nor bad, not completely likeable or unlikable, sometimes saying the right thing, sometimes the wrong. In the end, you might learn more by reading this imperfect quartet than the perfect one the author imagines her brilliant friend could’ve written.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 480 pages
Ending: cryptic, not consoling
Incidental Learning: Italy, Naples, 1980’s and 90’s political climate in Europe, life of a writer
Further Reading: If you’ve read through this whole quartet, then you a person comfortable with unease in writing, a person who seeks out unheroic, unremarkable characters who seem neither likeable nor necessarily unlikable. You don’t need something to ‘happen’ in your books, and instead you rely on the writing itself to keep the pace. If this is you, I recommend the following: Middlemarch, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sportswriter, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Swamplandia!, Mrs. Bridge.