Books and certain authors have the power to change your life. One of the most significant for me was the French novel The Stranger by Albert Camus. The phrase “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” still echoes in my head years after I read it.
For Virginia Woolf, it was Marcel Proust. After reading Swann’s Way, she considered it so beautiful that it almost stopped her from writing. Woolf was also a great fan of Jane Austen, and so was J.K. Rowling. The essayist Eula Biss was so influenced by Joan Didion that she rewrote Didion’s famous essay “Goodbye to All That.” Didion herself never writes a book without rereading Victory by Joseph Conrad. George R.R. Martin wouldn’t have written Game of Thrones without J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The list goes on and on.
More than any book or series I have ever read, the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante—My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015)—both influences to write and scares me away from it. Ferrante is my Joan Didion, my Jane Austen, my Joseph Conrad, my Marcel Proust and my J.R.R. Tolkien.
This coming-of-age, Proustian-like series follows Raffaella (Lina) Cerullo and Elena Greco, two young women growing up in the violent neighborhoods of Naples. From the perspective of Elena, the audience watches as the pair become adults. They grow apart and back together, fluctuating between friends and enemies, both fiercely devoted and devastatingly cutting to one another. The two women are both powerhouses but are incredibly flawed as characters. Lina: beautiful, brilliant, commanding, but cruel and stubborn. Elena: intelligent, devoted, kind, but timid and unsure.
The first book begins at the end. Elena and Lina are old women and Lina has disappeared; this is where Elena sets out to tell their story of their friendship. Ferrante’s prose is clean and the story is dramatic and enticing. The book is controlled and centered on the power of women and the importance and honesty of female friendships.
Female friendships aren’t all Mean Girls, but they aren’t exactly Thelma and Louise, either.
They aren’t as vanilla as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but not as dramatic as Heavenly Creatures. However, the relationships of girlhood are both supremely important and intensely passionate. They aren’t one thing, and Ferrante admits this. This book is so beautiful because Ferrante lets you know that the most significant and important relationship in your life does not have to be a romantic one.
The complicated nature of female relationships is rarely communicated in great literature. On Modern Library's list of 100 best novels, most of the books are written by men with male main characters. Less than 15 of them are actually by women and even less than that are female-driven narratives. A female author doesn’t even show up until No. 15 with Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.
So many female narratives are shaped and distorted by male characters. Even in some of my favorite pieces of literature—a modern book like Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and an older one like The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing—are by women and about women but don’t explicitly focus on female friendships. Of course, Elena and Lina are affected by the male characters and the relationships with them, but that is not the main focus, and that’s what makes this series so influential.