As “Ferrante Fever” gripped the English-speaking literary world, you might have mistaken it for a phenomenon exclusive to women readers. Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels, translated from the Italian, arrived on our shores in covers of pastel pinks and blues, with blurbs that promised a ravishing saga of female friendship, ideally marketed for moms and their daughters alike. So prevalent was this focus on the sororal bent of the books — perhaps because we often limit women to writing about “women’s issues” — that the series’ historical sweep, its blistering critique of capitalism and its brutal violence, did not always get their due, as HuffPost critic Claire Fallon writes.
This is likely to change as the Ferrante craze reaches its natural zenith: an acclaimed HBO series that doesn’t shy away from her socialist themes. No doubt this will be the first exposure for some Bernie Bros (remember them?), but quite a few men are on the bandwagon already.
And while they are indeed thrilled by the societal scope of Ferrante’s narrative, they are also learning something about the dynamics of feminine intimacy and identity.
Actor John Turturro expressed his affection for the books, noting their “civilizing” effect, and urged other men to read them for an idea of what it is to exist in a female body. “It’s great when someone can bring you into another experience,” he said.
“Men who want to understand women better (admit it) should read novels of most praised author in Italy, Elena Ferrante. Will change ur life,” tweeted someone whose bio lists him as a Korean War veteran in his mid-80s.
And on Reddit’s r/books, a dude in the middle of the second installment — The Story of a New Name — gushed about its complexity and vividness. “These books are a little outside of my ‘literary comfort zone,’” he wrote. “I haven’t read much fiction by non-English writers (she’s Italian), nor have I read many feminist-leaning works.”
Nevertheless, and despite Ferrante’s “natural, straightforward writing style,” he was hooked:
“What really captured me, though, are the nuances of and ambiguities of her characters. I’m really finding it hard to remember the last book I’ve read with such rich, well-developed, true-to-life characters. I’m fascinated by Lila’s character, and I’d love to hear some opinions on her. (I’m only in the second book so please NO spoilers!) Personally I’m torn, alternating somewhere between frustration and admiration. I’m also fascinated by her friendship with Lenú and their strange, unspoken dependency. Their friendship often seems poisonous and yet undeniably intimate.”
When’s the last time a guy with an avowed indifference to “feminist-leaning works” thought this hard about women’s emotional landscape? It makes you almost optimistic.
Seth D. Michaels, communications officer the Union of Concerned Scientists, finished the tetralogy a few months ago. “It’s a masterpiece, I could go on about it all day,” he tells me. The second book is his favorite as a standalone, but he likes it even more as part of a larger life portrait. “One of the things I really liked about [the series] is how much everything is tied up together — family relationships, friendships, sex, intellectual debate, politics, crime, work. There aren’t clear lines between them,” he notes, echoing a notable remark from Ferrante herself, who in an interview said that “relationships between women don’t have solid rules like those between men.” Having read this kind of incisive observation brought to life in fiction, Michaels says he actually feels smarter.
And while he’s used to reading novels by and about women, Ferrante still stands out. “The experience of being in a female narrator’s head and seeing experiences from her side is maybe not as new to me as it might be to others,” he says, “but Ferrante is just so sharp and clear and honest, it’s like taking an advanced-level class in it.”
Michaels also points out the flip side of the rich interiority found in Ferrante’s story: male behavior seen from outside. The Neapolitan Novels feature an ensemble of petty, abusive, often criminal men, and their toxic bullshit is on unsparing display. “I saw somebody tweet once ‘all men should read Ferrante to find out what you’re like,’ and there are so many moments in the books where it’s like, dang, yes, we are like that and it’s awful,” Michaels says.
Writer and editor E.J. Dickson agrees that the books “provide good insight into women’s psyches,” which frequently means reckoning with how men afflict them. They are “proof of how much shit women are forced to eat just to, like, earn their right to exist in the world,” she says. “At least that’s how I interpret Lila’s character. You know how in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, there’s ‘The Sexy Getting Ready Song,’ and the rapper comes in and is like, ‘Man, there are so many women I gotta apologize to’ after he sees how much work goes into women looking hot? That’s the function I would see these books serving for men.” (See, dudes? I told you women authors would give you a fresh perspective.)
My editor, Cooper Fleishman, who recently finished the series, says Ferrante’s deconstruction of masculinity had him reevaluating his own. “Personally, the books made me look at a lot of male friendships I’d developed over the years and think about how much I defined myself by their association or approval,” he says. “Nino Sarratore is such a damn cartoon, but I think every guy knows (and secretly loves) someone like him: so intelligent and magnetic we’re desperate for his favor, so successful with women (and, in turn, dismissive of them) our jealousy clouds our moral judgment. I think guys have a tendency to rationalize our friends’ behavior because they’re loyal to us, it feels good to be in their orbit and we gain social capital by proxy. It’s a feeling I really thought I’d outgrow by 30.”
But the Neapolitan Quartet held an even deeper personal meaning for him — and a connection to his mother. “I read the books with my mom, who grew up in a working-class Italian-American household in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and ’60s,” he says. “Without getting too personal, her own upbringing was similar to Lenú’s: living amid the threat of brutal violence, growing up precocious and fighting to continue her education, leaving the neighborhood, redefining herself and forging a career in a creative field. I admire her for that even more now, and I feel like I better understand the cost of what she did.”
Asked what she hopes men take away from the series, Fleishman’s mother replies, “That it sucked for women.”
For those enamored of Ferrante’s savage world, this expansion of the heart, along with a vision of the secret nerves that course through history, is a revelation. Many would argue that the books’ direct engagement of a reader’s empathy — a quality men have been shown to lack, at least in comparison to women — is exactly what good literature is supposed to do. That would certainly account for their “unlikely success,” and it may be key to her appeal among men despite being sometimes shelved as highbrow chick lit in the U.S. Because, let’s face it, guys are apt to miss subtle, emotive, interpersonal cues, and Ferrante’s surgical rending of such slippery stuff gives them no choice but to understand.
She is more, it appears, than a writer: a firm and patient teacher, too.