So I went on and got the next Neapolitan novel even though I complained loudly through the first one. Not because of any real deficiency in it, but more because of the way people talk about these books. As though the kind of relationship they portray is, through its realness, somehow something to be celebrated.
And I kept wondering why it nettled me so; to hear people I respected sing the praises, not just of the books, but specifically of the relationship central to the story. That is what makes a growl rise in the back of my throat. On the one hand, I suppose, hooray: people are finally celebrating and recognizing prose that treats the female childhood experience in the the way the male childhood experience has been eulogized for as long as there have been novels.
On the other hand: that’s a pretty fucking low bar.
And again, this friendship isn’t healthy. Even if it is real. Even if it is relatable. It’s not anything anyone should gravitate toward and say “ah HA! me too!” You don’t want to be a me too on this one folks. This is like the relationship between the narrator and Phineas in A Separate Peace. That constant, anxiety-ridden comparison. It’s awful. It may be relatable but it’s awful. Consider this passage (spoilers for book one):
“For her whole life she would sacrifice to him every quality of her own, and he wouldn’t even be aware of the sacrifice, he would be surrounded by the wealth of feeling, intelligence, imagination that were hers, without knowing what to do with them, he would ruin them. I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books. And for a fraction of a second I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing. At that point, with a sharp sense of anguish, I felt sure that I had ventured too far. I must go back, I said to myself, I should be like Carmela, Ada, Gigliola, Lila herself. Accept the neighborhood, expel pride, punish presumption, stop humiliating the people who love me. ”
As I said, this is relatable, without a doubt. Everyone whose friend was the pretty one, the complimented one, the one who started fucking first — you know how this feels. But…that grim familiarity doesn’t make it a thing worth celebrating.
For a long time, the full length of the first book, I worried that what I was balking at here was the ugly mirror the text presented me with. But that would be terribly, laughably simple, and anyway it’s not as though I go around pretending to be a saint, or to have been one, ever. I freely dispense the anecdote about how my best friend’s boyfriend suggested his dog fuck me, since no one else would. I dispense that anecdote so people understand how hideous some kinds of female friendship can be, and how desperate we are to hang onto it, still, when that’s all we have.
But I have the self-respect now to realize what a total waste of time preserving that friendship was, and I look at Lenu’s obsession with Lina and want to scream at her. Move on, cut her off, let her fuck up her life on her own terms and stop competing with her for godsake. Do what I couldn’t, for crying out loud. Live your life somewhere else and don’t let it get bogged down by this constant, unnecessary comparison. This competition.
There is also some frustration with the datedness of the sexual repression: the pre-marital bathing scene, for example. In 2018 you can just admit to yourself that you’re attracted to her, okay? Just do it and let it go. You don’t need to label it; you don’t need to wave a flag, or have a crisis; just out and out admit to yourself that hey, it’s not just her acumen and wit that demands your attention; her body demands it too. And poof, there goes the need for all these circuitous explanations, to yourself and to us. It is so much easier, in prose and in life, to just own up to your attraction to someone, rather than to wax poetic on all the reasons it’s just their mind/writing/joie de vivre whatever that moves you, rather than the whole, ah, package. It’s just so much easier to be honest with yourself.
But I get it, this was 1950s Italy. Fine. Writing about 1950s Italy in the 2000s though…just let it go. Especially having begun as, and striven to continue as, Anonymous. Just let it go. As a teenager I used to return again and again to a line of Alice Munro in The Beggar Maid, speaking of a girl’s fixation on her female teacher: “sexual attraction that had no idea what to do with itself.” Aha, I thought, foolishly. This is what I feel, this is who I am! When in fact, all that is is an elaborate falsehood designed to make oneself compatible with what one feels is expected of one. A terrible waste of time. Even if you never look at another woman like that again; even if no one else moves you like that; even if you have no interest in joining any movement, ever: it is so much more beneficial to you, the observer, to acknowledge that you are moved by all of a person, rather than having to twist your way through these elaborate hoops to explain yourself, to yourself. You’ve got better shit to do. See what you are and carry on, girl. Stumbling around with your hands over your eyes, you’re going to get hurt.
Anyway, I’m continuing on in this series, despite annoyance with the women who sing praises of the friendship depicted therein (this is not what healthy friendship looks like, hello!) and outright disgust for the men who do the same. (“Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” is quite possibly the most inaccurate and inane pull-quote on any book cover I own, John Freeman, you patronizing prick.) I hate to think that I’m continuing in the vain hope that Lenu moves beyond her obsessive competition and comes to find value in her awkward, bookish self, beyond that which Lina ascribes to her — but I suppose that’s a possibility. There’s still that marked difference between us, though: every girl I realized I hung my heart on like that, who exhibited an obsessive and desperate need to be deemed better than, I broke from, resolutely. This despite the disparaging observations of those close to me who find themselves unable to tear themselves away from any relationship, damaging or otherwise. You cannot spend your life like this:
“I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worst off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.”
No. No no no no no. You have got to do better for yourself. If you find this depiction of a friendship relatable, fine, own that — but then, don’t go on and on about how great it was. If you can relate to it then you know it sucks. So hard. For everyone. And what bothers me about what people say about this series is that they skip over that. “Yay truth!” they proclaim, without acknowledging that the truths they resonate with are hideous and awful and indicative of a gross and violent need for change. It can’t be nostalgia — I refuse to believe that of anyone whom I’ve yet seen or read praising these books. It can’t. You can’t think so little of yourself that constantly being the lower tier of a competing pair of adolescents holds any kind of attraction for you. You can’t think that kind of daily competition feels good, surely. You can’t think so little of yourself, now.
I hope, for everyone’s sake, that these books whose friendship they keep praising reach a point, in the characters’ thirties or forties maybe, where they realize they’ve been digging their own graves with this pointless rivalry. Where they set about burying said rivalry. But given the opening to the first book, this may never happen. That lurking comparison may persist throughout their lives — and that is such a sorrow, to me. Both of them have so much more worth doing, and being, than each other’s rivals. This isn’t friendship. Not as it ought to feel. If someone drains you so much, avoid them. If you have to lie to yourself to explain away your obsession with someone, stop lying. You’ve only got so much time to go around. Why waste it on constantly measuring yourself against someone who is supposed to be your companion, your confidante, your sister in arms? (And if you realize you want her to be more than your sister in arms…go find someone who is willing to be more. Do it.)
If there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women; if we all cultivate friendships like this…then we’re all doomed. Because we’ve all been there, and we ought to grow enough to realize that it’s not a place we should ever long for again.