A few years ago, Ann Goldstein gave a short talk about the Italian writer Elena Ferrante to the wives of some UN delegates. Goldstein is the English-language translator of Ferrante’s novels, which include the pseudonymous author’s Neapolitan Quartet, a four-book epic (over 1,600 pages) detailing the diverging lives of two female childhood friends. The translator says she first understood why Ferrante’s fiction had become a major critical and commercial blockbuster when, during the discussion following her speech, she was struck by how the books seemed to resonate with this diverse group of women.
“There were maybe 15 or 20 women from around the world” in the group, says Goldstein, “India, Africa, New Zealand, Poland, a real range. And these far-flung women in some way identified with, or recognized, the women’s lives in The Neapolitan Quartet. Not the specific details of time and place, but the emotional and social bonds and struggles of the characters, the societal pressures and situations.”
Well over three million copies of Ferrante’s magnum opus—consisting of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of the Lost Child, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a New Name—have been sold in North America alone (Ferrante’s works have also been translated into 40 other languages). Combined with the critically acclaimed, Italian-produced HBO series based on the books, this means not only is there something akin to Ferrante fever among America’s more literate population, but the keen anticipation for her first work of fiction in five years, The Lying Life of Adults, due out September 1, is almost as frenzied as fans looking forward to a Bruce Springsteen concert.
“There’s not a lot of good literature about women,” says Louisa Ermelino, who writes the Open Book column for Publishers Weekly. “It’s either chick lit or some 30-year-old girl trying to find her way. [Ferrante’s books] are about real life, but also not familiar. She’s bringing us into a world, but not just the basics; there’s a relationship. There’s a real need for this. It’s mostly thrillers and mysteries on the bestseller list. When you read Ferrante, you remember what literature feels like.”
Ferrante’s books deal with subject matter that in the hands of a lesser writer could be soap opera or pulp. Marriage, divorce, affairs, domestic and child abuse, class issues, sex, even organized crime—they’re all there, but in the hands of a writer whose work transcends genre.
“She is relentless in her pursuit of psychological truth,” says Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, Ferrante’s American publisher, “and while she happily employs some of the tricks of genre writing, she is even more committed to subverting them and surprising readers. She is anything but a formulaic writer.”
And then there’s the mystery of who Ferrante really is, which has only added to her mystique. Ferrante has assiduously kept her identity a secret, so much so that Goldstein, who has translated 11 of her books, only communicates with her through her editors. Several attempts have been made to uncover her real identity, but to this day no one can definitively prove who she really is, although in 2016 an investigative reporter named Claudio Gatti, relying on real estate transactions and royalty payments, claimed she is a translator named Anita Raja. Others have alleged the books are authored by Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone.
Whatever her true identity, Ferrante has been a published author since the ’90s. But it wasn’t until 2002, with the publication of her short novel The Days of Abandonment, a ferocious tale of a woman whose husband abruptly leaves her after 15 years of marriage, that her reputation began to grow internationally. It was that novel that her publisher, Edizioni e/o, decided would be the first title for Europa Editions, its new English-language company, which was founded in 2005.
“Ferrante’s voice is undeniable, and there is no doubt that all of us involved in publishing her felt from the very start that she would find an appreciative readership,” says Reynolds. “We also knew that her existing readership after three novels—The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter—was destined to grow with My Brilliant Friend, the first volume of the Neapolitan Quartet.”
Not that My Brilliant Friend exploded like a bomb in the American literary world. The book was published here in 2012, and sales were modest until the following year, when a review by James Wood in The New Yorker, who said the novel “may remind the reader of neorealist movies by De Sica and Visconti,” did not result in a spike in sales but, says Reynolds, “seemed to license other writers, critics, and readers to talk about Ferrante in certain terms.”
That’s when the power of indie bookstores kicked in. Like A Man Called Ove, the Swedish novel by Fredrik Backman that also became an in-translation sensation, it was the sophisticated readership and word-of-mouth from indie bookstore customers that pushed sales of the Quartet.
“A number of our staff members started reading My Brilliant Friend and we all talked about the emotional and psychological power of the book,” says Hilary Gustafson, whose Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan has sold around 1,000 copies of Brilliant and over 2,000 copies of the entire Quartet.
Gustafson’s store put My Brilliant Friend on their “New fiction we’re excited about” table, where her books have become a fixture. “And the number one thing we have seen is word-of-mouth” surrounding the book, she adds. “Someone will pick it up, and another customer will say, ‘Oh, my God, you have to read this,’ this enthusiastic response. It’s the most accurate representation of female friendship that has come out in a long time.”
“Word-of-mouth is what it’s all about, and indie bookstores have a lot of power,” adds Ermelino. “And people who shop in them are serious readers. Plus, some books are suddenly in the zeitgeist.“ As proof, one book in the Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, debuted at #3 on The New York Times’ bestseller list.
Not surprisingly, that readership is overwhelmingly female and well educated. Reynolds quotes Facebook analytics, which says that people showing an interest in Ferrante are 80 percent women over 55, many with post-graduate degrees. But, says Gustafson, “we see a surprisingly wide array of people” buying Ferrante’s books, “and I think there are just as many men; we have had several men come in and talk about their experiences with the books.”
The Lying Life of Adults certainly won’t disappoint this rabid readership. Already set to be a Netflix series, the book is, like the Quartet, both a social critique and a coming of age story. Narrated by Giovanna, a Naples teen whose parents are academics, the book follows her as her parents divorce, her dad marries his best friend’s ex-wife, and Giovanna becomes involved with Vittoria, her father’s long estranged sister, a nasty, foul-mouthed, manipulative, lower class woman who blames the teenager’s father for breaking up her affair with a married man and tries to turn her niece against her parent. Through all this, Giovanna suffers the pangs of adolescence, and learns the lessons of the title, as she matures into a woman.
In Britain, where media weighed in on the Italian version of the book when it was released last year, reviews were ecstatic. “Ferrante retains an extraordinary ability to conjure the concerns and changing priorities of different ages,” said The Guardian. Added the Observer: “Elena Ferrante is an expert chronicler of adolescence and its many indignities, as well as its erratic, overwhelming passions.”
The Lying Life of Adults has an initial print run of 150,000 copies and has been named one of the most anticipated books of the year by everyone from Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times Book Review and Goodreads. If there is such a thing as a guaranteed bestseller, this book seems to be it. But it is also something of an outlier in an industry where works in translation account for only about 3 percent of all books sold (most of Europa’s titles, many in translation, sell under 50,000 copies).
“The book industry lacks linguistic diversity, cultural diversity, socio-economic diversity, diversity of experiences and interests,” says Reynolds, “and that lack of diversity has translated into a lack of real interest in the literary production of other countries. And the book retail sector still does not look at books by foreign authors in translation as opportunities to grow their bottom line.”
“It’s a kind of fear” of something different, “like subtitles in movies,” adds Ermolino. “People want something familiar. And people publish what they know. It’s a harder sell.”
At least that’s not the issue for Ferrante, whose books seem to speak to thousands, if not millions, of readers. “She’s got this ability to grip you, this way of describing emotions that is very compelling,” says Goldstein. “I think for a lot of women she expresses things a lot of them might want to express themselves. You feel you’re in the mind of someone you know, and emotions you know, and she digs into that.”