I 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.