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The Neapolitan Novels

Everyone kept talking about Elena Ferrante and the Neapolitan books and how they were so good and I had to read them.

I caved and read My Brilliant Friend, book one, over Christmas 2015. It was fine but I wasn’t obsessed like everyone said I would be.

I’ve just finished book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and I just want to go on record as saying, these books are so good and you really do need to read them.

neapolitan

Maybe it was that in the first book, frenemies (are we still allowed to use this word?) Elena and Lila are still children and it takes a while for them to grow up. Their childhood slights and troubles didn’t make as big an impact on me, but I did enjoy life in their Naples neighbourhood.

But it is essential to know Lila and Elena as children, to understand their dynamic, the competition they felt with each other, where they grew up, to appreciate how their relationship ebbs and flows through the other books.

After books two (The Story of a New Name) and three, I am stunned at how Ferrante has been able to write about the complications of female friendship. Lila, who wasn’t able to continue going to school after Grade 5, has been married to an abusive man, left to work in a factory where the working conditions were pretty miserable until someone from the neighbourhood offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse. Elena, who has continued to study throughout university, has published a novel, married a professor and moved all the way to Florence. There she finds that she’s not terribly happy despite having everything she thought she wanted.

Through all the changes in their lives, there continues to be a magnetic pull between the two women. There is no one who knows you as well as those friends from childhood, especially when you remain in each other’s lives. But those relationships become complicated by the person you want to become, the new ways you see the world, the people you meet that aren’t from the same place as you. It can become difficult to maintain the level of intimacy you had from childhood.

This is the essence of Elena Ferrante’s incredible books. They ruminate on the internal lives of women, the struggle to be seen as a separate entity from wife or mother, to have things for ourselves outside those roles, how our relationships with other women change over time. All of this against the political changes of Italy from the 1950s forward.

These books are brilliant. They continue to gather more fans, to have more people talk about them because they are wonderful. If your only exposure to these books is the whole “who is Elena Ferrante?” business, you need to get to a bookstore/library and sort your life out.

Still plenty of time until it becomes an HBO produced series. 

I am desperate to read book four, The Story of the Lost Child, but I also don’t want to finish the series.

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Book Club Pick: The Dinner

I just finished reading The Dinner for the second time.

I think this is one of the first times that I’ve re-read a modern book. I re-read Austen or Bronte all the time, but a modern novel? That doesn’t happen very often.

I first read Herman Koch’s The Dinner last summer. I had heard great things about it; it was hailed as the European Gone Girl. It had recently been translated from the original Dutch and takes place in Amsterdam- there was no way I wasn’t going to read this.

So I read it last summer and then I had no one to talk it over with. Months later, I hosted book club and as the ladies were perusing my bookshelves, The Dinner was taken down and I couldn’t help gushing about how great it was, how messed up and that I had wanted to talk it over with someone ever since. But no one had read it.

It became our next book club book.

I think I enjoyed it more the first time. But only because the first time, in an effort to take in the whole story and all the characters, I was only able to do a surface read. The second time, I was able to understand the characters better, and I didn’t love them.

the dinner

Paul and Claire Lohman are on their way to have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. The couples are having dinner (at a fancy Amsterdam restaurant) to discuss their two teenage boys, Michel and Rick. The boys have clearly done something but you don’t know what it is until about half way through the book. Paul arrives at the restaurant ready to pick a fight – he’s annoyed that he has to pay 10 euros for an appertif after the manager makes it sound like it’s on the house. His brother, Serge, waltzes in like he owns the place. He is the favoured candidate in the ongoing Dutch election which further complicates their relationship.

Over dinner the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. Paul remembers the past 11 years by revisiting significant moments: the time his employer suggested he see a psychiatrist, the time his wife was in the hospital for a significant amount of time and Serge and Babette came by to take Michel to stay with them, the time his son came home and told him about the neighbour down the street that invited the boys on the block to come into this home and listen to records.

As the story unravels and you sort of realize what Paul is (as the narrator, Paul refuses to ever go into specifics because that stuff is private and he doesn’t understand why everyone has to make everything so public all the time) and what his son has done, the story shifts to how best to handle it. Paul and his brother have very different ideas of what the next steps should be.

I remember reading it the first time and kind of agreeing with Paul about what the best way to handle his son’s future was. This time I was horrified by it and was hard pressed to find a redeeming character in the whole thing. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it the second time – I did. It just means that this reading experience was really different from the first one and that surprised me.

One thing is for sure – this little novel packs a big punch leaving us with loads to discuss at book club next time.

PS The Dinner was recently released in paperback.