I finish the last novel in the Neapolitan series by the writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante. Her character, also Elena, has studied her way out of the slums of Naples, grown into a writer. Her brilliant and reckless friend Lila, both of them born in 1944, marries at sixteen and although she never leaves Naples, barely leaves her neighborhood, becomes the passionate and furious center of intrigue and commerce. And always Elena’s measuring stick: “Have I lived the life I should have?” she asks herself. “Are my caution, my dutiful studies, my relentless drive to write, excuses for not living?”
At the end, Elena has just received a package that contains two dolls, hers and Lila’s, that she thought were lost sixty years ago. Lila had thrown Elena’s beloved doll through a grate into a forbidding basement. In anguish, Elena threw Lila’s after. The loss had triggered events that set the series in motion: Elena’s need for and rejection of, and by, her childhood friend Lila. Now, after many years of making herself invisible, Lila, apparently, has sent the package, with no note. She had manipulated everything from the start, rescued the dolls, and kept them herself. The last sentence is: “I thought now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”
I admit I’ve been reading through the four weighty novels pulling along my own echo. Maybe good stories always make us do this. My friend Donna was born six days after me, also in 1944. As I read the novels, I kept bouncing back and forth: which was I, my friend Donna, or Elena? I am the writer. I am also the one who married at seventeen, whose marriage was doomed from the start, who married twice more, whose life was for years a tumult. I am also the one whose children often took second place to my studying, my drive to write, to succeed, to get out of the neighborhood, out of Arkansas.
My own youth was a novel I’ve barely heard of, not read. I was doing [End Page 79] something else, I guess. I scroll through the many pictures I was sent of my fiftieth high school reunion. I recognize some names, some familiar faces. Did I have friends? A fair number signed my yearbook, “To Fleda, a terrific girl.” But they scarcely knew me. We didn’t hang out. I just seemed likeable. Someone to say hello to in the halls. I think of those years now and see myself as a ghost, somehow not attached to myself.
There was that one friend. She died of cancer more than twenty years ago. When I found this out, later, it felt suddenly as if the book of my youth might not have happened at all. I sometimes think if I could see her clearly, now, as detailed as Lila, there would be some benefit, that my old lost self would coalesce, my edges would brighten.
Not to whine. I’ve been over this territory so many times before. My lost self. These years later, I can still feel the angst in my bones when I was riding the bus home from school. The dread. Of nothing in particular, only the cracking and groaning of the walls of my family’s life, of mine. I can hear Robert Hayden’s poem, his voice, his “fearing the chronic angers of that house.” And his word “blueblack,” his winter mornings, my evenings, on the bus, headed home in the dusk.
Why did Elena and Lila need each other? What did I need—an ally, a parent? I would latch onto a person, one at a time. My gaze turned only in that direction, as if we were married. There was a Sharon, early on, then Donna, before I entered the big-time, with Harry, my boyfriend who became my husband. Donna was a fine husband, through fifth and sixth grade, and then into junior high, until Harry quickly usurped her place with thrills she couldn’t provide.
Her family owned a small house perched on one...