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Notes on Elena Ferrante from a Bookseller Who Hasn’t Read Her [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

While many people assume that booksellers base their recommendations on “theme” or “setting” or other similarities of content, I think that the real trick is understanding which need or compulsion has been sated with a certain book, and then handing that book to others who have a similar desire they’d like to fulfill (be it hope, confusion, a desire to be disturbed or to be challenged, to feel set in a place—any place, not just the same country they just read about and loved—or to be drawn along by a story where they just can’t stop turning the page).

Sometimes I realize I’ve been playing a bookseller game with popular literary novels, in which (a) I don’t read a single line of the novel, and (b) I immediately forget both the jacket copy and any review I’ve ever read of it. Then I proceed to recommend the book to surprisingly correct people, knowing exactly why they’ll love it. This is possible thanks to the generosity of people who shop in bookstores, because they LOVE to talk about books.

Recently, or I guess for the past three years, I’ve been playing this game with Elena Ferrante. After finding so many satisfied readers of the Neapolitan Quartet,1 listening to which needs these books have fulfilled, and passing along the recommendation to others, I wanted to go deeper into this phenomenon and figure out not only why readers found them so gripping, but also what allowed so many readers to discover them in the first place (as my recommendations have been merely a drop in the bestselling bucket).

During the past two months, I’ve started asking everyone who buys one of the latter novels: How did you happen to pick up My Brilliant Friend in the first place?

Almost everyone I have talked to either received it from a friend, or bought it because (a) that one friend they really trust recommended it, or (b) multiple friends recommended it in a short period of time. So my new question was, Who are these friends? Who are our patient zeros and why did they buy it?

I remember that when the first of my coworkers picked it up, it was just after the James Wood review in the New Yorker a few years ago. From there, another coworker read it, and we’ve been recommending ever since. So we can conclude: Mr. Wood started one strain.

Another strain that led to our door came from a different bookseller. Buying the fourth novel at my shop, a customer said that she got My Brilliant Friend because she was at Terrace Books in Brooklyn looking for a copy of The Goldfinch, which wouldn’t be out in paperback for a couple more weeks. They told her to read the Ferrante in the meantime, she did, and is now a huge fan. Such perfect bookselling. Good work, Terrace.

Not to ignore Ferrante’s other novels (the short ones), a different introduction happened when I apparently recommended The Days of Abandonment (I don’t even remember!) and after reading that, a guy has read everything else of hers.

One regular customer at 192 Books bought a copy recently and blew through all four in a matter of weeks. I couldn’t remember whether we’d specifically recommended it, but apparently she was just in browsing and couldn’t figure out what she wanted, but had seen My Brilliant Friend on display at the shop for years on end, so she figured she would finally pick it up. This brings us to another issue: The reason she had avoided it for so long was . . . the cover. She has extremely good taste in fiction and couldn’t believe that this would be a great novel. (Decided afterwards that it certainly was.)

Rather than complain about the covers, I’ll just present a few responses. A huge number of people complain as they come up to the register, saying that it’s such a shame—and these are mostly the people who love the books. It’s only the wild force of critical and personal acclaim that caused them to read My Brilliant Friend despite the way it looked, and they would have picked it up sooner with a different jacket.

This does make it a bit difficult when recommending, as there’s often a level of disbelief. Someone was at the register, just about to purchase it, with a hesitation we didn’t understand, and she finally asked: “Is it like a really good cheesy Lifetime movie?” Noooo, ignore the covers! And she looked relieved.

A customer was buying the fourth book and said that her best friend’s husband gave My Brilliant Friend to his wife, and several of her friends. She loves them, and when I said I haven’t read them yet but am looking forward to it, she said, “Ignore the covers! It’s really not all melodrama like it looks!”

(Disclaimer: there was one customer who told me that she picked it up at Spoonbill & Sugartown because she liked the look of them, the packaging. And a few people did mention that it was the quotation, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry . . .” on The Story of a New Name that first interested them.)

Another funny hesitation (among those who keep up with the book world) is the following: “I don’t know, I mean I tried to read the Knausgaard books and couldn’t get into them . . .” “. . . ????”, I say. Such a weird but understandable conflation. Besides the game of Are you a Ferrante or a Knausgaard?, some people think of them as similar, just because four books in a series came out during the same years, and the same people were talking about them.

But back to the idea of melodrama: my non-scientific survey concludes that this is precisely how many Italian readers view The Neapolitan Quartet. Comments include:

“It’s like chick lit.”

“She’s not a real writer.” (Not like Alberto Moravia, for example, whom this customer doesn’t particularly like, but thinks is a Real Writer.) She believes that the reason Americans like her so much is that there’s all this stuff in the New Yorker and New York Times saying she’s so great, so everyone believes them.

Regardless of the question of Objective Quality, there’s certainly something to be said for these American responses I often hear:

  • A lot of my friends were reading the quartet and “they just had ‘that gleam’ when they talked about them.”
  • My mother read them and “she didn’t come up for air.”
  • They’re amazing, and although everyone talks about them as having great plot, the point isn’t just the story of the friendship, that’s just the device that let’s her get into deeper issues of politics and feminism and all sorts of serious topics.
  • Elena Ferrante is “the master of the run-on sentence” and although a lot of people say she’s all about the plot it’s really “her language.”

So, in conclusion, the main point I’d make is that The Neapolitan Quartet is thriving because they are loved, they are forced upon friends based on that love, and the critics may have started something but they certainly didn’t create it. A love that makes books featuring covers that most people don’t understand turn into bestsellers at many independent bookstores is a beautiful affront to tenets of publicity and marketing, as all the tricks of the trade will make for great initial sales, but won’t turn into a long-lasting flood like this.

Of course I don’t know which side I’ll take, now that I’m finally going to read them. Either way, I love people who love Elena Ferrante. And I will continue to recommend the Quartet to many people who “just want a really good book.”

1 Quickly wanted to mention that all of the books in the Neapolitan Quartet are translated by Ann Goldstein.



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