In high school my friends and I daydreamed about the big house we’d all buy together when we grew up. It would be a big house in Southern California, and every day would be a continuation of our glorious days of summer: dinner parties, Frisbee, car washes, greasy sandwiches, bonfires at the beach. We each had a role: handyman, cook, that guy who does all the spreadsheets.
Perhaps you all know how this ends. Perhaps it is hardly surprising for me to tell you that we are scattered now, that many of us no longer talk at all. I never told them this, but I didn’t want to live in California anyway.
To say we grew apart is a cheap explanation. It leaves much out. Growing apart—what does that mean? Why do some friendships grow and others grow apart? Where is the line between breathing space and total disconnection?
I read the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet over the span of three weeks, a pace that accelerated as my sense of urgency increased with each cliffhanger. The second volume took one week; the third, three days; and the last, I read between two p.m. and midnight one weekday afternoon starting with the first free moment I had at work.
Initially I read My Brilliant Friend together with a friend who was over 6700 miles away. We’d send each other short messages with our opinions of the book intermixed with the sort of updates on work, vacation plans, and mutual friends that all long-distance friendships live off of. At the same time I was tangibly lonely—living in a new country, with few friends outside of work and even fewer in it. I looked to Elena and Lila for a model of what I should have, or what I should want. My first six months living abroad, when I read the Neapolitan novels, were also six months of Skype dates, copious emails, and texts at all hours. I was trying to recreate the sort of intensity I’d felt in college or high school when a new friend seems capable of transforming your life.
For me, female friendship was the main draw of the story, the vital and beating heart of the narrative. The long-distance relationship between Elena and Lila struck me as a vein of gold.
The most Lila-esque character from my own life is Ellen (name changed), whom I met in the fifth grade. She was incredibly intelligent and possessed a ruthless work ethic. Like Elena, I spent many of my younger years feeling in competition with her—and often, like Elena, feeling like I was on the losing side. We read together, wrote together, and I like to think we inspired each other, even as we eventually went to different schools and drifted out of day-to-day contact. Nowadays we work in separate-but-related fields and have an easy respect for each other. In an email this past summer, thinking about lost friends, I asked her, “What do you think makes a friendship last?” Her reply: “Not letting the silences matter, I suppose. Picking up the conversation as if it had never stopped.”
This is how Elena and Lila function throughout their sixty-odd years of friendship. I can’t count how many times Elena declares she doesn’t need Lila, that Lila’s opinion doesn’t matter, that she won’t tell her about university in Pisa or the publication of her first novel. And yet their paths continue to converge. Their relationship is a seesaw that tilts from calling each other several times a day to long stretches of nothing at all. How many times does Elena say lines such as “That night began the long, painful period that led to our first break and a long separation” only to later reverse and think “I wanted to embrace her, kiss her, and tell her, Lila, from now on, whatever happens to me or you, we mustn’t lose each other anymore”?
Many of us have a fantasy of long-term friendships. These fantasies might be based on sitcoms, feel-good books like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or Harry and Ron and Hermione. These are friends who stay together from cradle to grave, despite distance and time, who call each other every Friday night and know every detail of each other’s intimate lives. While they occasionally argue, the friendship always triumphs. Your best friend marries your sister; you live next to your college friends in the same wealthy suburb; you get the friendship version of happily ever after.
My Brilliant Friend runs counter to those tropes. As Lila points out numerous times, she and Elena occupy the same space only until fifth grade. Then their lives continue on wildly divergent paths. Elena becomes a well-traveled, gentrified academic and writer. Lila becomes a keen businesswoman, computer programmer, and secret mistress of the political mechanisms of Naples. Elena spitefully comments that Lila hasn’t picked up a book in years. But Elena knows nothing of computers and possesses none of Lila’s familiarity with the political climate in their hometown. And years after Lila stopped writing, Elena still fears that Lila will come out with a novel that will shock them all. Behind whatever warmth of feeling they have for each other is a bitter undercurrent of rivalry and even fear.
Nor are they the only central characters in each other’s lives. To hear Elena tell of it, there is hardly a moment in sixty years when Lila is not at the back of Elena’s mind, goading and pushing. But she glosses over the year she spends with Franco, for instance, and Lila’s long relationship and collaboration with Enzo are left largely out of the novels.
The Neapolitan quartet is characterized as much as by Lila’s absence as it is by her presence. This is the paradox that drives the narrative. In the very first paragraph of My Brilliant Friend Elena admits that Lila has gone; in the next breath she tells us she is writing this story to combat Lila’s desire to “disappear without leaving a trace.” It is only much, much later in the story that Elena admits to us that the story, which begin out of an old desire to usurp her friend, is more of a plea to her: “I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it.” Even as Elena relives their old conversations, in the present day there is only silence. Indeed, for all the talk of violent emotions in the Neapolitan novels, one of the secrets it hides is a lot of silence.
My closest friend from high school, Myasha (a pet name), loves California. I don’t. She loves exercise. I hate it. She studies engineering. I study literature. She hates breakfast foods. Brunch is one of my reasons to live. She does not travel much, while in the past four years I have actively sought out every opportunity to see different states and different countries. We very rarely read the same books, listen to the same music, or watch the same shows or movies. We see each other maybe six days a year—less, now that I live out of the country. Practically speaking, we know very little of each other’s worlds. But we’ve stayed friends this long, and though I used to feel sort of guilty if I didn’t plan to visit her over the summer or if she wasn’t the first person I turned to with a funny story, now I think the longest friendships need the pauses between conversations, the long silences, the occasional tired lull. They need the space.
Particularly in the middle two volumes of the Neapolitan series, Elena talks to the absence of Lila as much as, even more than, she talks to the actual Lila herself. In person, she often feels stifled around Lila, stung by a biting comment, retorting with one of her own. But in times of distress she automatically wonders what would Lila say or do. Imaginary conversations are an element of any friendship, but in particular long-distance ones. Compared to the real thing, imaginary conversations never disappoint. We imbue our imaginary friends with mystic grace, projecting onto them the qualities we think they have, or need them to have. Imaginary friends will never text while we’re talking or spurn a movie that we secretly liked. Good friends, like good books, miraculously seem to conform to the gaps in our lives—but that speaks perhaps more to our individual gaps than the friends themselves.
In the end, Lila—whom Elena paints as an almost superhuman character, like a goddess to be feared and loved—is only human. She doesn’t hack into Elena’s computer, as Elena half-hoped she would. She doesn’t transform the whole of Naples or write the novel Elena feared she might. In the end, worn-out and grieving, Lila is as human as anyone else. “Stay near her, she’s a woman who isn’t comfortable with herself,” Lila’s long-time, live-in lover tells Elena when he moves out. “She’ll have a hard old age.” In those two brief sentences the mythology of Lila is pierced and we see, from the man who lived with her so long, a simpler and perhaps truer crystallization of her character than what Elena has built her up to be in four volumes.
But if Elena simply accepted Lila as a restless old woman, their friendship would be over. The Lila of her imagination, the Lila of their friendship, is much more than that.
As I was speeding through The Story of the Lost Child and the realization hit me that this was the last volume, I remembered that the novels opened with Lila’s disappearance. I began reading more intently, looking for signs that Elena would find Lila again by the end of the book. “I tried to telephone her, first on the regular phone, then on the cell, then again on the other,” Elena writes. “She didn’t answer, she hasn’t answered me since.” My heart leapt into my throat.
And this is another way in which the Neapolitan novels usurp the popular conventions of friendship: there is no neat ending, no promise of forever, no embrace on the front lawn while the curtain drops. The books end much where they began, Elena signing off on a wistful note: “Now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”
Sixty years together—wouldn’t you think that was enough? And yet friendship is one of those things that the more you have, the more you want. I wanted Lila to be found. I wanted the reunion scene. I loved Lila and Elena. I wanted them to last.
I wanted them to last in the same way I wanted to keep all those high school friends together, neatly bundled in a big house. I wanted to think that in fifty, sixty years I’d still be able to pick up the phone and call up Ellen or Myasha or the friends in whom I’ve found something that I want to cling to. I wanted Lila and Elena to last as a kind of proof that that would happen. But the reality—as life shows us, as Ferrante’s novels shows us—is that all relationships are an ongoing story, with long pauses where you don’t know what will happen.
But even that is not absolute. How many times have Elena and Lila broken with each other, and how many times did they turn back to each other? Even after the final page, there’s a possibility that Lila may surprise Elena again and turn up, spewing caustic comments as though not a day has passed. I don’t know. Maybe that reunion will never happen. But I can imagine it does.
Such imagination drives the friendship of the Neapolitan novels. This imagination is a kind of faith, a belief in an absent friend: If only she were here, things would be different. It is both emotional support and creative inspiration.
So maybe it is better that our dearest friends aren’t always with us. If they were here, we wouldn’t miss them, and if we didn’t miss them, we wouldn’t imagine them. And if we didn’t imagine them, wouldn’t we be even lonelier?
Angela Qian was born in California and graduated from the University of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, The Toast, and The Point, and she was the recipient of the 2014 Norman Mailer College Prize for Poetry.