The theme of Ferrante’s writing seems to be “no self left unturned”. The core of the four novels centres around the friendship and rivalry between the narrator Elena Greco and her friend, Lila Cerullo.
Critics have said “never has a female friendship and so vividly described”.
The two women complement each other, challenge each other, and struggle to find themselves as separate individuals. Elena is driven to try and define herself by Lila’s absence in her life.
Lila is at the bottom of the pecking order in Naples, impoverished but amazingly bright, able to read at the age of three, which even the more remarkable is considering her mother is illiterate.
Her childhood story ‘The Blue Fairy’ written with Elena, sets up a literary rivalry. Lila is presented as the true creative of the pair, able to see and clarify ideas in ways that others miss. But Lila is denied even a middle school education- it is Elena who eventually goes on to University and a writing career.
Lila, says O’Rouke, is presented as a kind of genius. ”She is demonised by her culture and then lacking an outlet for creativity, she turns demonic.”
At the end of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Lila says to Elena, “you are my brilliant friend”. She looks to Elena to live the life she doesn’t see herself as ever having.
Ferrante writes about women who are shaped and distorted and even destroyed by their social milieu (Naples, The Camorra) and the men around them.
These feminist novels an intensely private and intimate point of view- but Ferrante hardly “celebrates” femaleness as she tries to find her own way out from underneath traditional female roles.
One of the points of difference with other feminist writers is that Ferrante doesn’t try to find any redemption in her experience. Elena is often shamed or disgusted, or angry because of her body, her fears, her lovers, her mother, mother-in-law and daughters. As she becomes more independent, finding her feet as a novelist, she does not become whole-heartedly happier or freer. She remains essentially herself through a long journey from childhood to a 66-year-old, still showing that “lingering inadequacy of those who start with nothing.”
For a synopsis of My Brilliant Friend and some questions to think about go to:
Below is some information from Wikipedia. If you go to the site there are some good links to longer more in-depth articles about Ferrante’s writing. The best is an article from the NYEr by James Wood but the Megan O’Rouke article is also great.
 Megan O’Rourke, the Guardian, October 31, 2014