“Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.”
Elena Ferrante, an acclaimed Italian author who writes under that pseudonym, intoned these words in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first story in her series the “Neapolitan Novels.” The series follows two girls, Lila and Elena, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood of Naples, as they struggle for an education, are daunted and then intrigued by boys and yearn for a life outside of their community — really, as they come to grips with the complex truths of growing up as a girl.
I’m only on the second book, but what I’ve read has been luminous, quietly potent as Ferrante meanders through complicated lives — as a review in the Guardian stated, “Nothing quite like it has ever been published.”
As important as I find these stories, I would have to disagree that they are the first of their kind.
I was a freshman in high school when I first learned the term “Bildungsroman,” coming from the mouth of an English teacher I idolized. A German word, clunky and unromantic, it’s used to describe a story surrounding a character’s coming-of-age. A story in which the greatest plot point is the main character changing and growing over the course of time. I was disappointed that such an uninspiring, sticky word described what was the most important genre to me when I was growing up, and to this day.
These were the books that had always captivated me: ones of slow growth and rich details, ones that allowed readers to dive into a character’s mind and watch as they changed and grew up. I had my favorites, the classic novels listed in the Bildungsroman Wikipedia entry: “Catcher in the Rye,” John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace,” even “Harry Potter.” Stories about boys, and about boyhood.
But two Bildungsromans in particular had entranced me from fifth grade on. I felt I was their girl protagonists, as they grew into women I dreamed of becoming. Both published in the early 1900s, neither “Anne of Green Gables” nor “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” were lauded at the time of their release, but they sold well, and they still sell today. Stories of smart, sincere young girls growing up and navigating two distinct worlds. Both struck a chord with readers. Almost a century later, they struck a chord with me. I connected intimately with Anne and Francie, despite living very different lives from them — I saw shades of myself and the women I loved in them as they grew up.
So despite the Guardian’s pronouncement, Ferrante’s stories are not the only in their class, though the group is small. Anne from small town Canada, who over the course of 11 novels finds a family, a vocation, falls in and out of love, has children and loses one, is very different from “Brooklyn” ’s Francie — a girl growing up in impoverished Williamsburg, who has to face the dichotomy of honoring her heritage and leaving the pain and poverty behind. Like Ferrante’s Lila and Elena, “Brooklyn” relays rarely represented expressions of girlhood as it makes its jumbled way into womanhood.
Books (or Bildungsromans) like “Gables” and “Brooklyn,” like the “Neapolitan Novels,” find ways to get inside the minds of young girls — laying anew the aching insecurities, the unwinnable competitions we are placed in, the sad importance men and boys have in shaping our self-esteem. However, these stories go farther than just the universalities of girlhood, using painstaking details to create fully developed lives. In the scope of great literature they may seem small, or irrelevant — relegated to the category of young adult lit, or worse, “women’s,” whatever that means. But their stories are inherently unique in how they create fully realized female characters rather than generalized tropes or bit parts. And unlike much of great literature, they are not focused on the climaxes, on great acts of valor, on powerful figures, on sweeping virtuosos. They are about the daily walk to school, the boy met on a beach and then never seen again, the fight with a best friend, the small, unimpressive stories that fill the lives of girls and that are rarely given value. The little moments that create a life that make a person.
I haven’t finished Ferrante’s books yet, but I can’t wait to see what happens to Lila and Elena. That’s really all that great books are supposed to do to you.