Ferrante Fever versus the Forces of Franzen

FerranteFeverI felt so pleased with myself today. For months, I’ve waited for Elena Ferrante’s next book, “The Story of the Lost Child.”  Finally, the crescendo of the Neapolitan novels was soon to be in my hands. I walked on a rubble path, through Golden Gate Park with a friend and I told her of Elena’s hidden identity and how some say the books are written by a man. I tell her I found it implausible and if someday proven true my belief in anything would be crushed forever. She had heard about “Ferrante Fever” from Jezebel and just started reading book one. I immediately rebuked her for liking Jezebel, I called it click bait and a snarky form of feminism I found insulting. She liked the blog because they posted issues she cared about and I told her that she didn’t need Jezebel. She kind of shrugged and I realized I could have tempered my proclivity for being overbearing.

I thought of how lucky we were to work near Green Apple Books on the Park, one of the last remaining bookstores in San Francisco. I knew exactly where “The Story of a New Name” would be placed. It was as if I took a standing leap, like an out of shape ballerina, straight to the wooden shelf. In a few short seconds, I grabbed one of remaining two copies and placed it on the counter. An irrepressible squeal, a few claps of my hand came next as I fished around for money, eagerly awaiting to complete my purchase.

“I bet you didn’t expect people to come in squealing over a book,” I say in a pleased tone.

“You aren’t the first one today!”

“Oh that’s good, I can’t wait to start reading. I’ve been waiting for months!!!”

“Ferrante is getting more excitement than Franzen today,” says the youngish bookseller boy.

“Well, of course, I’m not choosing Franzen over Ferrante!!”

My friend obviously hadn’t been too offended by my dislike of Jezebel.  She stuck around the bookstore to watch as if I was picking up a huge cash prize from the lottery. She happened to bump into a friend who just happened to be there to pick up her Ferrante pre-order.

“I overheard you’re reading book four!”

“Yes, I’m so excited. You know what I’ll be doing tonight!”

“Yeah, I tried to come in yesterday to pick up my book early and they wouldn’t release it until today!”

“What?! I’m sure the book was here!”

Just then the bookseller showed up with a box that said Ferrante Fever Party Box. He handed us pins that said “Ferrante Fever” in a strangely inappropriate but eye-catching hot pink neon style. Then he reached in the party box and handed us Europa tote bags. It really couldn’t get any better I thought to myself. I may have squealed again.

“I heard you mention Franzen,” says the woman who was picking up her order.

“Yeah, there is no way I’d read his version of feminism over Ferrante,” I say without holding back again.

“Right?! I don’t like his style.”

The bookseller pipes in, “Yeah he’s not really that great.”

I walked back through Golden Gate park and thought of how willing I was to make so many opinionated proclamations. Earlier in the day I had posted an article about the death of the San Francisco Hipster and for some reason I had called out my closest friend. I didn’t feel like holding back the truth. I did cringe every time she offhandedly called me a hipster or referred to my hipster family. But what kind of friend had I been to tag her name on such a post, laughing about the death of the hipster? Because, yes the hipster is dead and really all counterculture identity is pretty much dead, but did I have to be such a snot? I must have found it necessary to share this opinion with so many people. My friend may have meant little harm calling me a hipster, or maybe it a compliment, or a simple observation. Here I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps it was out of some weird combination narcissism and smugness that prompted me to let everyone know that I dislike labels. Yeah don’t call me anything, I want to say. I’m undefinable.

And what of this comparison between Ferrante and Franzen? I had found it so validating to have a conversation about disliking Franzen. Obviously, in the literary world it’s de reiguer to put one’s nose up at highly promoted fiction writers. Yet I always end up reading his books, while all the while complaining of his misanthropy. I remember that I had ordered a signed version of “Freedom” before the release date and read it with rapt attention commanded by such a literary force. I had blabbed to all my friends about “Freedom” not unlike the incessant stream of platitudes I lay upon Ferrante’s work. But what had struck me after reading “Freedom” was that I was left feeling hollow. At first his characters had pulled me in and I wanted to follow their transgressions, hoping for redemption or insight. But “Freedom” doesn’t take you there, one is still trapped within the confines of unlikable characters and murky ethics.

When I finished “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” book three of Ferrante’s series I gasped out loud and raised my fist to an empty space. I couldn’t believe the end, even if I had seen it coming, perhaps a thematic device. For months after, I kept thinking of Lenu and Lila and they brought up insights into what it means to live as a woman in the shadow of men, those in our family and those we love. I thought of all the times that I had been a selfish friend, especially to those who I consider close, even to this day. Lenu and Lila’s lives together created a portrait of friendship and feminism that unfolded with so much energy, connection to others (including the reader), to the past and to the present, it became hard not to layer in our own memories. The many flaws of the characters left small wounds, not unlike the how I feel when I see a child left out on the playground. Oh, I how I wanted to go and offer my hand, to take away the isolation and abandonment. Ferrante creates dynamic characters who inhabit a small world, but within a span of decades of complicated friendship we are taken through so many depths of emotions we feel as if we had lived along with them.

As I write this I almost feel a strange nervous trepidation to start the last and final novel because I know it will be the end of the story of Lenu and Lila. But this is the pleasure that I long for, the joy of reading with transfixed attention to the end, and even after I finish I will still make connections and think of their story.

4 thoughts on “Ferrante Fever versus the Forces of Franzen

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  1. I totally wrote you a long comment to this last night before I went to bed, but WordPress stole it when I couldn’t remember my password. GAh!

    Right before I went to bed I noticed that my Kindle had updated my library with the “Story of the Lost Child” that I had preordered. I then noticed that you had blogged about it. How sweet to actually walk into a book store and buy a real copy of the book. I look forward to reading the last of the series and discussing it with you. Have you read any of Ferrante’s other books?

    BTW: I heard this story on my way home last night that you might enjoy: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/01/436289199/in-new-neapolitan-novel-fans-seek-clues-about-mysterious-authors-past

    I am also looking forward to the new Franzen book, and didn’t realize there was such a competition between the two book releases. I can kind of see what you mean about his books making you feel hollow. I actually remarked to a friend the other day that I find his perspective almost sociopathic in nature, but still oddly compelling. I particularly enjoy his perspective on how the story of characters is driven by inter-generational forces. Also, since I only read his most acclaimed books recently they truly do feel like time capsules.

    To focus on the new Ferrante book, I’ll put aside the Haruki Murakami book I was just trying to start. Talk about an author that leaves me feeling hollow and slightly dead inside. But for some reason still SOOOOO compelling.

    P.S. No need to feel odd about calling me out on Facebook re: Hipster. I will try to refrain from categorizing you in the future because I do know that you hate labels. I still say the conflict here is that we have a different definition of what a hipster is. I think this is partly because you live in an area so overrun with Hipsters that a subculture of hipster has become the “norm” in the communities you interact with. According to the Urban Dictionary “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” But as much fun as it is to push your buttons on occasion, I will refrain from using the H word in the future.

    1. Hey you can push my buttons anytime!! On books that are leaving us hollow, I’m not sure I’m into that. This is why Ferrante came along at the right time, because she reminds me (us) that people can complicated but loving, that there is humanity in tragedy, that being honest doesn’t have to be sappy. This is what I feel Franzen doesn’t seem to see in his books.I heard him on Fresh Air and his responses to Terry still left me with the distinct feeling that he is guarded and trying to find the right thing to say in a very conscious way that took away from his authenticity. There have been many times that an interview with an author and the author’s openness and honesty and inspiration have been the catalyst for me to read their works (the charming and stilted ways Karl Ove Knausgaard comes to mind). But it struck me that listening to Franzen talk made me less compelled to read his books. Needless to say, I have so many books to read that it will take a while before I consider reading Purity. ALSO, it’s so awesome that Europa a small indie press is getting so much attention with Ferrante. I am cynical about the big guys.

      ps: I’m almost done with A Story of a Lost Child….its soooooooooo good. Did you see how many O’s are in the so!? It’s that good

  2. I don’t know either of these authors, but I do know is that you are a terrific writer yourself and bring this journey alive. I certainly know the joy of a good read that touches the soul. There are the books I read and give away for others afterward, and there are the ones I pass along with instructions to return them, so I can reach for them later as the friends they are.

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