When Lila Cerullo disappears at the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, it’s not a passive act but a violent one. Lila doesn’t vanish, she doesn’t evaporate; she erases herself, cutting her image out of family photographs as determinedly as she removes clothes from her closet. It isn’t enough for Lila to make herself disappear, Ferrante writes; she has to “eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.” But Lila’s ambition backfires—she’s more present in those butchered snapshots with their glaring voids than she was in photographic form.
Aggression and dominance saturate the Neapolitan novels as surely as alcohol suffuses limoncello, bitter and sharp. Elena, the narrator whose coming of age occupies the first book, emphasizes early on that her tales of growing up aren’t nostalgic, because her childhood “was full of violence.” Every relationship is portrayed as being a negotiation in power. Elena’s mother conveys to her daughter how “superfluous” she is; the girl’s father beats “Lenù,” as Elena is called, after being goaded by her mother, who insinuates that he’s not manly enough to hit his child. The central relationship in the novels, Lenù and Lila’s friendship, is defined by the fluctuating dynamic between the two, encapsulated in the twist at the end of the first book, when the “brilliant friend” of the title turns out to be not Lila, as assumed all along, but Lenù.