I love to read the lists of the year’s best books that pop up in December. Before Christmas, I saw several references to The Neapolitan Novels, specifically to “The Story of the Lost Child.” I was suspicious initially. In my mind, the name implied a series of Italian romances. And I tend to associate series (wrongly, I know) with the dozens of repetitive Baby-Sitter Club books I read as a child, not with great literature. Still, the reviews of the earlier three novels were glowing. Had I found four worthwhile books in one shot?
I finished “My Brilliant Friend” last week, and I’m now in the middle of “The Story of a New Name.” The books follow the friendship of two women in Naples, Italy, from childhood to old age. The first book shows the girls in childhood, and the second is about their adolescence and early adulthood. The second book is grabbing me more than the first did because it delves into the pressures that society puts on women when it comes to marriage and motherhood. Plenty of other themes are woven in, about how childhood experiences shape us and about how the expectations of other people can stifle us or launch us.
If you have had a friend who awes you, this book will ring true. Likewise, if you have had a friend who frustrates you. I hate to pull out that “frenemies” word, though that seems an apt description for this pair of characters. They compete with each other and want the best for each other. The protagonist, Lenu, is relatable as she struggles to keep up with others who seem effortlessly intelligent and cosmopolitan. Her life feels like the story of my high school years. I may have looked smart, but I was working so hard for it.
I spent a lot of last year reading female writers. When I look back at the books I read in school, most were written by men. We dabbled with Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Toni Morrison, and that was the end of it. No surprise that the female authors tend to have more female characters, and those characters are multidimensional, both flawed and strong. The characters in the Neapolitan Novels fall in that same category. They anger me, and still I want to keep reading.
Greg and I discussed books a few weeks ago, and it came up that I haven’t read “Moby Dick.” Greg suggested that I read more classics as part of my New Year’s resolution. And I said OK — as long as they are by women.