Reviews — From the October 2014 issue

The Secret Sharer

Elena Ferrante’s existential fictions

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By and by, the girls do pass beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood. Such is the movement of their times. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena’s father shows her how to cross the city after she gets a place at the classical high school: “He took me on Via Costantinopoli, to Port’Alba, to Piazza Dante, to Via Toledo. I was overwhelmed by the names, the noise of the traffic, the voices, the colors, the festive atmosphere . . . Was it possible that only our neighborhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?” Lila, we know, never made it to high school: her father wanted her to help him at his work. But she does go into town on the weekends with her brother’s friends to see the dandies on the Via Chiaia. A year or two later, once her “delicate, unusual beauty” has blossomed, she and her fiancé, a grocer, dress up “like movie stars” to go on excursions in his open-top car.

The second book, The Story of a New Name, begins at Lila’s wedding feast — paid for, Lila is horrified to discover, by her fiancé’s business partner, a local gangster — and proceeds to a hotel just up the coast, in Amalfi, where Lila’s husband starts beating and raping her on their wedding night. She puts up with it to begin with, then runs away with her little son to the coastal suburb of San Giovanni a Teduccio, where she gets a job in a salami factory. Elena, meanwhile, has moved on from high school to an elite university in Pisa, where she meets her future husband, the son of a prominent intellectual family, big in the Italian Socialist Party. Shortly after graduating, in the space of a few weeks, she writes a novel, which is published to wide acclaim. As readers soon realize, however, the triumph is not unambiguous. Nor does it face entirely to the future. Nor is it hers alone.

Elena’s novel — which, like the old neighborhood, remains nameless — is basically a coming-of-age story, but with a profound strangeness in it, “a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colors of a blowtorch: a blue-violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks.” There is “a mystery in the writing that only true books have,” says one admirer. “On every page,” says another, “there is something powerful whose origin I can’t figure out.”

Elena has just returned from her first trip to Milan when she realizes what the origin of this power must be. The “secret heart” of her novel, the hidden source of the “strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences,” came from a buried memory of a story that Lila wrote when the girls were ten, “The Blue Fairy,” itself a retelling of the encounter with Don Achille, “the evasive thing, unnamed and shapeless” at their friendship’s source. “Her child’s book had put down deep roots in my mind,” Elena says, “and had, in the course of the years, produced another book, different, adult, mine, and yet inseparable from hers, from the fantasies that we had elaborated together in the courtyard of our games, she and I continuously formed, deformed, reformed.”

Elena decides to return to Lila the only copy of “The Blue Fairy” in existence and “to tell her, you see how connected we are, one in two, two in one.” She finds the factory at the end of a dirt path strewn with rubbish. There’s a bonfire and an overwhelming stench of burning animal, a stench that gets more sickening the closer she gets. She searches in carcass-boiling, meat-stripping, sausage-stuffing, then finds her friend heaving sides of meat from the gigantic fridges, eyes feverish, hands swollen and covered in cuts. The women embrace and Elena tells Lila about “The Blue Fairy.” “It was good just . . . to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” As Elena walks out of the factory and back to her new life, however, she turns to see Lila standing by the bonfire, glancing through the pages of her story before throwing it in.

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