The Neapolitan books are set somewhere in Italy, a poor neighborhood in Naples where violence and strife are so normalized everyone is conditioned to either not react to it or react with more violence. This neighborhood could be anywhere in the world, even in Nairobi.
I almost annoyed myself into stopping reading the Neapolitan series because in the first book My Brilliant Friend Lenú’s siblings said: “You look like a negro” with a certain ‘contempt’ when Lenu came back from Ischia. The sun had painted Lenú’s skin with dark gold. Thank heavens that I am not one to leave a book half-read, or a sentence half-said. So I finished the first book My Brilliant Friend and thought I was done. A couple of weeks later, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lila in her new marriage. I wondered if Lenú would become a brilliant scholar, teacher, lecturer or just marry and be done with it. I wondered if Melina would get better.
So, I went to the library and borrowed the 2nd book The Story of a New Name. After that, there was no stopping
Relationships and Community
The first thing to catch my attention is Melina’s madness. Everyone thinks she is imagining an intimate relationship with the poet Sarratore senior. I think to myself “of all the things she can imagine in her madness, why would she imagine that? Why doesn’t she imagine it with someone else?” Taking time to think about Melina brings Lila into the frame quite fast because Lila empathizes with Melina. Takes her side in many matters. Why? The girl stays in my mind.
In this community, no one expects the girls to be educated beyond elementary school, not even their own parents. The girls start looking out for potential husbands before they reach puberty. It could be Kilifi in Kenya, Turkana, Igembe – it could be so many places in the world.
Of course, as in all poverty-stricken communities we have the richest of the poor and the poorest of the poor. Enter the Solaras who are willing to do anything to keep their position and money – even murder and frame an innocent man for the murder. Then we have all those willing to do anything to be associated with the rich Solaras, if only as a way to escape poverty. It doesn’t matter that they all hate the Solaras, they all want or need the Solaras money and influence to survive.
Poverty as an ACE
The trauma or desensitization of all the children in Lenú’s neighborhood is clear from the beginning. So is the unawareness of the adults who are all oblivious of the adverse traumatizing experiences of their community. Everyone expresses the effects of the traumatizing society in their own way, but in the beginning, only Melina and Lila, are openly acting out their resistance. The beginnings of a silent revolution is felt at Lila’s wedding. It is felt in Lenú’s studies and her dates with Antonio while she loves Nino.
By the end of the 2nd book, it feels like the revolution is in full swing, or is it? The wife, Lina has left her husband and the mistress has moved in, pregnant. Vibrating under all the frenetic activity is Lila’s determination to free her body from brutality, but does that also free her mind from the brutalizing circumstances of her life? Does that set her son free? Does it matter?
Those who leave and Those who Stay
In this third Neapolitan novel, Elena and Lila, the two girls whom readers first met in My Brilliant Friend, have become women. Lila married at sixteen and has a young son; she has left her abusive husband and now works as a common laborer. Elena has left the neighborhood, earned her college degree, and published a successful novel, all of which have opened the doors to a world of learned interlocutors and richly furnished salons. Both women have pushed against the walls of a prison that would have seen them living a life of misery, ignorance, and submission. They are afloat on the great sea of opportunities that opened up during the nineteen-seventies. Yet they are still very much bound to each other by a strong, unbreakable bond.
The Story of the Lost Child
The Neapolitan series about Elena and Lina’s friendships is one of the deepest, most genuine and devastating friendships I have ever read about. When Elena says “I wanted her (Lina) to die” – I couldn’t breathe. There is no peace in the realization that a relationship or a friendship is the meaning of life and also one of life’s most burdensome connections. Living through weeks and months when you want to call, visit or write and yet you can’t because you are in a hateful or sensitive period. Competitions where nobody wins. Men who may notice the best friend and maybe even cheat with your best friend. Is one to choose the man or the best friend?
The tragedies and traumas of life don’t pause when you are fighting with your best friend – both the small and the huge. Parents and siblings dying, friends falling apart, marriages unraveling, poverty and the the big ones like the sudden loss of a child. The successes of life don’t disappear either just because your best friend was mean the last time you spoke.
What are we to do with friends who can be mean to us and yet we love them? How about friends who never look under the surface level to see what’s really destroying us slowly? With marriage they tell us to get a divorce, can we just divorce our best friends? This series will make you think. It will make you angry about all the things that are unsaid between friends, and about all the things that are said – unnecessarily. But most of all, the Neapolitan series may bring joy for the friendships that came and stayed – even if they took breaks