Read anything and everything written by Elena Ferrante–that’s my recommendation. Although her books take place in Italy in the mid-20th century, I find so much in common with her characters that, when I’m reading one, I start to feel like I live there too. The Neapolitan Novels is a four-book series that starts with My Brilliant Friend and continues with The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child. HBO did a fantastic production of the first three books and is working on the fourth.
The series traces the friendship between Lenu and Lila, five year old girls in a working class neighborhood growing into their teenage and adult years. Poverty, violence, and inequality impact their lives at every step. As they compete over grades, boys, and opportunities to leave the neighborhood, Ferrante delves into the psychology of friendship with a brutal honesty, exploring issues of love, jealousy, conflict, resentment, and secret-keeping.
I have to talk to Lila, I said to myself. She has to tell me everything she’s doing, what she plans, so that I can decide whether to be her accomplice or not….But I never called nor did she call me. I was convinced that the long voice thread that had been our only contact for years hadn’t helped us. We had maintained the bond between our two stories, but by subtraction. We had become for each other abstract entities…We both needed new depth, body, and yet we were distant and couldn’t give it to each other. (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, p315.)
My friends and I hold up tiny mirrors to each other’s lives. Although I don’t know every bit of their history, their day-to-day grind, or the exact next turn their life will take, I can see parts of myself through my friends’ eyes. With one friend, our conversation revolves around our identities as parents. We mutually validate an extremely free-range parenting style that would freak others out. With another, we share our spiritual growth in words and concepts that I would never use with someone else. He makes me feel like a guru, and he is often mine. With another, we spill over with commentary about books, art, and music. I wishfully believe that her erudition will rub off on me. I love to support my friends through listening and understanding, but I also need to see myself through their eyes. So when a friendship falters, fades, or ends, I not only grieve the loss of that person in my life, I also feel that whatever aspect of my identity they reflected is on mute.
Jennifer Senior recently wrote about the heartbreak of losing friendships in a powerful piece in The Atlantic, offering insightful examples and analyses of these complicated relationships at the core of our lives. Reading it was like a good therapy session; it brought up relevant if painful memories and reframed them in a larger context of the challenges that we, as flawed humans striving to make sense of our lives, may face.
P.S. Last week I read the news that Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua passed away, so I wanted to recommend my favorite book by him, A Journey To The End of The Millenium, as well. At the heart of this story is Ben Attar, a merchant from Tangier whose Judaism is called into question when he enters the Ashkenazi community of Mainz. It’s a clash of civilizations story about the rabbinic decree that forbade polygamy and how it affected Jewish families. A hard book to start but worth all the effort.
What are you reading? Want to talk about it? I’d love to hear! Email me and let’s meet for coffee, go for a walk, or sit on the comfy couches of The Soul Center.
From my soul to yours,