When I was in high school, I worked in a small bookstore in Virginia. I mostly helped out, shelving books and making displays in the storefront windows. The common in-store metric of a book’s worth as a display object—most of my coworkers were men—was whether or not it was a “mom book.” This taxonomy had very little to do with the content of a novel, and almost everything to do with how it would look as a display: a mom book might have a frilly serifed typeface spelling out its title; a saccharine photograph of something like a swing set or a naked woman’s back; the (most often female) author’s name written in relatively small text, at least compared to the blocky shouts of JONATHAN FRANZEN or ZADIE SMITH printed across the jackets of better-selling, more serious literary fiction; and—the ultimate marker of a mom book—an “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker plastered over the front.
Mom books aren’t just for moms. Book club books, chick lit, beach reads: we have a lot of gendered language to dismiss emotional fiction about domestic experiences, from the best Isabel Allende and Marilynne Robinson novels to the factory-fiction of Danielle Steel and the like. At a point when the majority of contemporary fiction readers are women, there is still critical (if not commercial) pressure to keep literary fiction packaged such that it appears separate from the soap-opera territory of typical “women’s fiction”: works that grapple with the day-to-day experiences of (usually white, heterosexual, cisgender) women.
When she was in high school, Elena, the narrator and protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan novels, worked in a small bookstore in Naples. The bookstore functions as a kind of narrative springboard: Elena’s place of employment between her last years of high school and her first year at university, the bookstore is a bridge between Elena’s childhood in a poor mercantile neighborhood and her life beyond Naples as a woman of letters.
Even before Elena’s bookstore job, the book-as-object is central to the diegesis of the Neapolitan novels, as well as to their critical reception. The four novels (which were written under a pen name—Ferrante’s identity remains unknown) trace an intense, decades-long friendship between Elena and her friend Lila, beginning with their early childhoods as schoolgirls in Naples. Their friendship is marked by intense spurts of rivalry, jealousy, and competition for power within their intimate two-person hierarchy. Early on in the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, this rivalry is established when Lila writes a small book, entitled The Blue Fairy. It has a careful pastel drawing on its cover and stands in for Lila’s seemingly inherent brilliance in school, her easy abilities against which Elena is constantly comparing herself.
The book, authored by a fourth-grade Lila, becomes a lifelong obsession for Elena, even as she surpasses Lila academically—going on to middle and high school after Lila drops out at the end of elementary school—and eventually as she leaves Naples for university in Pisa. In the second Neapolitan book, The Story of a New Name, Lila enters an unhappy marriage and stays in Naples while Elena writes a novel, which becomes a minor bestseller among Italy’s literary elite. Still, she writes, having found the old hand-bound copy of The Blue Fairy: “How I had loved the cover colored with pastels, the beautifully drawn letters of the title: at the time I had considered it a real book and had been envious of it…. I began to read The Blue Fairy from the beginning, racing over the pale ink, the handwriting so similar to mine of that time. But already at the first page I began to feel sick to my stomach and soon I was covered in sweat. Only at the end, however, did I admit what I had understood after a few lines. Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book.” This is the overarching relationship between Lila and Elena, which gets at something native to many intense friendships between women: through their competition, the two women define each other, setting the terms of each other’s various successes and unhappinesses.
The final Neapolitan novel, titled The Story of the Lost Child, came out this past September, wrapping up the two friends’ story of mutual influence. The book’s release provoked an enormous escalation of attention among U.S. audiences; in a phenomenon coined “Ferrante fever,” the buildup to the final book’s release was something between that of a new Knausgaard and a new Harry Potter, culminating in midnight release parties at many bookstores. Amidst a wave of virtually unchecked acclaim for the novels, criticisms of the books’ covers operated as a singular interruption of near-universal praise. Described as “awful,” “comically ditzy,” and “reminiscent of vintage tampon ads,” the books’ covers make them almost embarrassing to read in public: all four books are bound in pastel-toned images of painfully kitschy scenes—a wedding, a beachside embrace, a woman holding a baby. The cover of the The Story of the Lost Child depicts two young girls on a beach, each wearing fairy wings. The type is serifed and precious, and, unsurprisingly, Ferrante’s name is written in daintily small print. The Neapolitan novels appear, in short, to be the ultimate mom books, proclaiming their girlish frivolity from bookstore shelves even before a browsing customer might know that they tell the story of a decades-long female friendship.
But here’s the thing about the books: they are just about as Serious and Literary as any Serious Literary Fiction published in the last decade has been. Elena and Lila’s friendship, spanning from the 1940s until the present, is set against a detailed portrait of Italy’s changing intellectual left, which plays an increasingly prominent role as the books move forward in time. Elena, at university, reads the Greeks, reads Trotsky, reads Hegel. She is exposed to communist Italian youth movements, narrates as her colleagues flock to Paris in May 1968 and hand out literature on workers’ rights in front of the sausage factory where Lila has found employment, and eventually discovers academic feminism. The brilliance of the Neapolitan novels comes not just from Ferrante’s emotionally dexterous understanding of interpersonal dynamics, but from their tenuous balance between emotional and academic spheres, between Elena’s position as a friend and as a person of letters, between the two women’s interior lives and the intellectual landscape of Autonomist Marxism, tumultuous class and labor relations, and emergent feminism that surrounds them.
I spoke to Dayna Tortorici, an editor at n+1 (and former editor at the College Hill Independent) who wrote an essay about Ferrante for n+1’s Spring 2015 issue, about the Neapolitan novels and their marketing. “They make more sense in an Italian commercial context,” she told me over the phone. “But a good point of comparison is that almost all American literary fiction is packaged similarly. There’s a lot of hand-painted script with no graphic imagery at all. Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel looks that way, The Art of Fielding looks that way, The Marriage Plot looks that way. Maybe the trend is turning, but you’d see it and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is the branding of literary fiction.’ And Ferrante could have had ‘classy’ book covers and had her books be about women intellectuals dealing with their gender identities and the stereotype of frivolous women, but she, or maybe Sandra Ozzola [the founder and art director at Europa Editions, Ferrante’s publishing house], pushes the reader to do something extra by committing to carry around this tome in public that has two children in fairy wings on the beach on its cover.”
Indeed, in an interview published in August, Sandra Ozzola told Slate that the covers were designed to look tacky—that their saccharine-ness is meant to intentionally play with the books’ fascination with the gender and class assumptions Elena and Lila are subjected to. “I intentionally searched for a photo that was ‘kitsch,’” Ozzola said. “This design choice continued in the subsequent books, because vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena wants to distance herself from.” This in-joke may have come across to attentive readers, but Ozzola admitted that the covers haven’t really translated well: “We also had the feeling that many people didn’t understand the game we were playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.”
Ozzola’s realization mirrors a moment within the books. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel, Elena sees the German, French, and Spanish translations of her book. “They were ugly books,” she writes. “On the cover were women in black dresses, men with drooping mustaches and a cloth cap on their head, laundry hung out to dry. I leafed through them, I showed them to Pietro, I placed them on a bookshelf among other novels. Mute paper, useless paper.” The intellectual power of her book has been betrayed by its packaging.
In “Those Like Us,” her book review for n+1, Tortorici points out the particular historical and ideological context from which Ferrante’s books arose. As opposed to the flattening and egalitarian rhetoric of sisterhood and camaraderie that characterized American feminism in the 1970s and ‘80s, Italian “difference feminists” of the same era—based largely in the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, a political group for women—sought to acknowledge the differences in power between women, whether those differences were based in race, class, or sexuality, thus anticipating an acknowledgement of intersectionality that mainstream American feminism would not recognize until several years later. “The regime of sameness also failed to comprehend differences in strength and personality, taste and desire,” Tortorici writes. “Missing from sisterhood, the Italians argued, were mothers and daughters, and they questioned whether the insistence on sisterhood — to them most manifest in the political fight for ‘equality’ inherited from the youth movement — was a reaction to ‘the obliteration of the mother in our society.’” The idea being that, under patriarchal conditions, the relationship between mother and daughter has no form.
The evasive mother-daughter relationship, then, became a paradigm onto which social hierarchies among women were mapped—a paradigm that acknowledged differences in power between women, and then attempted to use those differences to help all women move forward. The daughter depends fully on her mother until, sinking into old age, the mother’s role is reversed and her grown child helps her out.
“All of Ferrante’s novels have mothers and daughters in them, and the relationship between friends also has a sort of mother-daughter component,” Tortorici told me. “And the Italian feminists worked the fact that people have different relationships to power into their understanding of how to fight for more just social practices, so it’s all about women helping other women move forward. And it’s very pronounced in My Brilliant Friend: the two friends are constantly pushing each other to succeed, to finish school, to leave the neighborhood, to do whatever.”
Throughout their decades-long friendship, Elena and Lila “alternate between playing the symbolic mother and the symbolic daughter.” Lila pushes Elena to succeed academically much more than Elena’s own mother ever does. On a beach vacation one summer, Elena teaches Lila to swim and urges her not to cheat on her husband. Lila, having temporarily married into wealth, buys Elena’s school books so that Elena can keep studying. Elena cares for Lila and her young son when Lila becomes overworked at her factory job. The texts are rich with psychoanalyze-able scenes of babies and mothers, autonomy and dependence. And yet the two friends’ roles as mother and daughter are never static, shifting as they alternately surpass and fall behind each other. The Neapolitan novels are, in the truest sense of the phrase, mom books.
In a recent and oft-cited essay for Tin House titled “On Pandering,” Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the short story collection Battleborn and the 2015 novel Gold Fame Citrus, wrote about her success as a female author whose fiction has mostly grappled with typically ‘male’ subject matter. (Her books are saturated with boozy stories set in the American West.) Growing up, she wrote, “I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens…I read women (some, but not enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind. The writers with megaphones in my mind were not Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams, or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. Still, I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.”
Compare Watkins’ statement with a quote from Ferrante about her influences, published in an interview with the Paris Review, and you begin to wonder if Ferrante’s secret identity might actually be Claire Vaye Watkins—or, barring that, why female novelists are so often compelled to seek male literary role models. “As a girl—twelve, thirteen years old—I was absolutely certain that a good book had to have a man as its hero, and that depressed me,” Ferrante told the interviewer. “That phase ended after a couple of years. At fifteen I began to write stories about brave girls who were in serious trouble. But the idea remained—indeed, it grew stronger—that the greatest narrators were men and that one had to learn to narrate like them...So even when I wrote stories about girls, I wanted to give the heroine a wealth of experiences, a freedom, a determination that I tried to imitate from the great novels written by men. I didn’t want to write like Madame de La Fayette or Jane Austen or the Brontës—at the time I knew very little about contemporary literature—but like Defoe or Fielding or Flaubert or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even Hugo.”
There’s a moment in The Story of the Lost Child when, on a book tour across Italy, Elena describes a lecture she gives about the feminist tract she has recently written. “I talked about how, to assert myself, I had always sought to be male in intelligence—I started off every evening saying I felt that I had been invented by men, colonized by their imagination.” I sought to be male in intelligence: Elena’s statement stems from the same conditions that have convinced contemporary fiction readers of all genders that Jonathan Franzen’s books look more serious than Allende’s or Robinson’s or Barbara Kingsolver’s or Ferrante’s. Perhaps the over-the-top girlishness, the very intentional mom-book aesthetic, of the Neapolitan novels’ covers is an attempt to deliberately work against that kind of internalized literary misogyny—the same kind that Watkins and Ferrante herself describe. Elena thinks that she has been invented by men, but Ferrante’s book covers argue otherwise: that the ultimate ‘inventor’ is only ever the mother. To male readers and writers, Tortorici told me over the phone, “I think Ferrante is saying, ‘Yeah, within the mom book is something really important to you, because without it you would be dead, you would not exist.’”
LISA BORST B’17.5 is Elena Ferrante.