It's Called "Ferrante Fever"—And It Taught Me 6 Things About My Career

6 Things Elena Ferrante Can Teach You About Your Career
by Emily Hunt Kivel
December 21, 2016
"You've got the Ferrante fever," she said. "Everyday women come in here looking for the third book, looking just like you." By "like you," she meant singularly determined and manic.
Sometime in late April, the heat already sweltering and the sun beating down on me in the unnatural habit of a Los Angeles spring, I found myself hurrying down Sunset Boulevard with a single goal in mind. I felt delirious—high, almost—basically unaware of the traffic lights and sweat beginning to accumulate on my forehead. I blundered through the door of the bookstore, not taking the time to wander around the shop and leaf through a few intriguing volumes. Instead, I walked immediately up to the counter. I was just about to speak when the clerk stopped me.

“Ferrante?” she asked.

 “Yes.” I answered.

“What book are you on?” she followed.

“Three.”

She immediately hopped off her stool and went to retrieve the third book in the Neapolitan Novels series by Elena Ferrante. "You've got the Ferrante fever," she said. "Everyday women come in here looking for the third book, looking just like you." By "like you," she meant singularly determined and manic. For those of you who don’t know, Elena Ferrante is the evasive pseudonym of an Italian author who has rocked the worlds of literature and platonic female romance on their sides. Her Neapolitan Novels, a four-book series that follows the exploits of two childhood friends— Elena and Lila—in mid-century Naples, earned the author a voracious international following that publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times could only describe as “Ferrante Fever.”
In other words, she taught me a hell of a lot about being a woman and a human being—lessons that I continue to apply to my everyday existence in life, love, and career.
There’s a fascinating, intricate history around Ferrante that I’ll spare you for sake of word count. There’s also, I assume, a multitude of twisted and individual reasons that Ferrante’s series has enchanted so many. While I couldn’t quite verbalize it in the strange, ravenous midst of actually reading the books, I now see why they were so important to me: Ferrante both subverted my ideas about the world and proved some of my deepest suspicions. In other words, she taught me a hell of a lot about being a woman and a human being—lessons that I continue to apply to my everyday existence in life, love, and career. 

Lesson Number 1: Everyone is Faking It

Growing up in poverty-stricken streets of Naples, our narrator, Elena, proves to be especially academically gifted. She is quickly thrown into the world of university and academia, where no one is really as smart as they think they are. Even those who succeed are either riding on their charisma or their fastidious, painstaking hard work rather than their natural intelligence. In fact, even after Elena writes a popular and critically acclaimed novel, she still suffers from an unbearable (to read) case of impostor syndrome that mostly follows her into old age. 

It's hard to say whether or not she's right—and that she's not quite as talented as the public believes her to be—but it doesn't matter. The colorful depiction of academia, wealth, and success in Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels taught me that everyone you know, deep down, is sort of faking it. One of the main differences is that men seem to feel just fine with the artifice. 
...everyone you know, deep down, is sort of faking it. One of the main differences is that men seem to feel just fine with the artifice.
For this reason, I read the Neapolitan Novels at a very fortuitous time in my life. After a successful academic career at university, whose accolades didn't quite follow me in my professional pursuits, I felt a bit jilted and lost. Combined with the fact that I was (and am) currently pursuing being a fiction writer and reading books by revered authors from the past few centuries, there was certainly an anxiety of inferiority within me. Even successes I had in fiction were followed with a deep guilt, a feeling that I might eventually be "exposed."

Ferrante taught me that most people feel this way. She also taught me, indirectly, that most people are, in fact, faking it, and that no one is as intelligent, attractive, cool, or talented as they would lead you to believe (of course!). And you know what? This at least makes it an even playing field. So suit up and join the inferiority complex-riddled fray.  

Lesson Number 2: Your Career Alone will Not Satisfy You

Turns out, ladies, that your career isn’t the only important thing in your life. I always suspected this (after all, what’s that old adage about no one on their death beds wishing they had worked more?), but as a young, educated woman married at a relatively young age, I spent a lot of my early twenties obsessively trying to prove to people that I was a success. It made me a lot more stressed out than I needed to be.

Most of the main characters in the Neapolitan Novels, including Elena, her best friend Lila, and their philandering lover/resident man-boy, Nino, all eventually become successful in their respective vocations. Yet they remain three very mixed-up, darkened people who, while incredibly interesting, wouldn’t easily be described as “happy” or “satisfied.” This is mostly because, despite all their vocational brilliance, they've all been fairly obtuse when it comes to introspection and building fortifying relationships.

The thing that has always satisfied our two delightfully, tragically complicated heroines most? Each other. For all the outrage and confusion these two women bring to each other, it is their relationship that ends up enduring and fortifying them throughout their life. Their competitive natures motivate them vocationally and their mutual love and respect inspire them creatively. 

For most people, career success is empty if you have no one to share it with. Human connection is at the heart of happiness.

Lesson Number 3: Career Alone Won’t Satisfy you…and Neither will Men

That said, not all relationships are created equal. What struck me most about the men in the Neapolitan Novels is the fact that, though they are not one-dimensional characters by any means, they still appear as mere catalysts, distractions, and obstacles to our two female protagonists. Rarely, if ever, are men actually the point of it at all.
Rarely, if ever, are men actually the point of it at all.
I’m happily married, and I can’t lie and say that men and romantic love aren’t a huge part of my life. But they aren’t everything. In fact, I doubt I would be so happily married if not for the borderline neurotic-level care I take to cultivate my female friendships.

Looking for satisfaction, strength, and happiness in one person is, in my view, a recipe for disappointment. Romantic love can be all consuming, but refraining from taking a myopic view of human relationships can be hugely beneficial. A person’s needs are diverse and vast. So, too, should your relationships be.

My husband frustrates, maddens, and delights me every day. So do my best friends, in very different ways. It’s what makes life interesting, and what makes me feel strong. 

Lesson Number 4: Creativity is a Sublime Pain in the Ass

The Neapolitan Novels narrator, Elena, is a writer—of fiction, of meta-feminist texts, of semi-autobiographical sex novellas. No wonder I find her so relatable! That said, her stories don’t come to her easily.

There are some people that just seem to ooze creativity. Can you think of them? They’re always somehow able to dream up the subject for a unique piece of art, always somehow able to juggle a few projects at once, always somehow able to actually finish them. I am not one of those people, and neither is Elena. For us, the feeling of being creative is sublime for about the few, frenzied days or hours of working. After, when suffering from a mind-numbing case of writers’ block, creativity is our bitter nemesis.
There are some people that just seem to ooze creativity. Can you think of them? They’re always somehow able to dream up the subject for a unique piece of art, always somehow able to juggle a few projects at once, always somehow able to actually finish them.
Now, I have a gut feeling that, like the ever-infuriating Lila, Ferrante herself (whoever she is) is actually one of those people—those natural, feckless creatives. But Ferrante makes a solid case for the slow-going artist: creativity pours out of us at our own individual rates, and the most we can do is attempt to work through a brief (or not so brief) lull in inspiration. Creativity isn’t always easy—sometimes, it’s a learned technique that takes practice.

Lesson Number 5: You are Not Your Family

Oh, the Neapolitan family. Oh, the strange gender dynamics and dark, entrenched inheritances of ancestry. Oh, the intimacy. Oh, the guilt!

The question of family starts having much deeper implications in the later Neapolitan Novels, as our narrator Elena starts desperately attempting not to become her mother (and then sort of becomes her in the process) and as Lila ends up running herself down to ruin and destitution in an inauthentic attempt to please (and financially support) her family.

It’s painful to watch both characters twist and turn to accommodate their family histories, at once trying to honor their mothers and fathers and at the same time attempting to totally disinherit them. The fact is, neither is the best option. A happy, supportive family is one thing. A family that doesn’t emotionally support or comfort you is owed only as much as you want to owe them. Compromising your own goals to placate some strange, usually very arbitrary ideal set by your parents will end well for exactly no one.
Compromising your own goals to placate some strange, usually very arbitrary ideal set by your parents will end well for exactly no one.
Similarly, distancing yourself from your family in order to assert your own identity is also a futile endeavor. That very act of distancing gives them a power over your life, choices, and identity that you probably don’t want them to have.

Your decisions are your own. And whether they like it or not, your family is probably a little responsible for whoever you become. Remaining empathic while still very much secure in the knowledge that your decisions are yours and yours alone will save you a lot of pain when negotiating difficult family relationships.

Lesson Number 6: Education is Important

Writing these “lessons” worries me that I’m implying Ferrante’s work is moralistic—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Most things are murky and ambiguous in these books, which is why they feel so close to life. That said, the Neapolitan Novels do indirectly argue that education is one of the most important things for a successful career. No, I don’t mean a graduate degree from some fine university or a smattering of liberal arts classes. Ferrante would never be so obvious. What is important is the curiosity, ability, and discipline to learn.

Growing up, our narrator Elena always believes herself to be the slightly less intelligent half of her and Lila’s friendship. And while I did speak earlier of Elena’s impostor syndrome, I can’t help but think she’s actually a little bit right. Still, her hard work, curiosity, and discipline carry her successfully through high school, a strong career at university, and eventually a lucrative writing career. Elena isn’t cut out to be a professional academic, but the things she learns along the way—second wave feminist philosophy, for one, and modern applications of Marxist thought, for another—help mold her into a woman whose writing is both deep and intimate, smart, and honest. Her education teaches her to think, and she owes her writing career to this ability.

The brilliant Lila, on the other hand, is never educated past elementary school. Still, she is an autodidact. A quick and curious learner. She learns English and Latin at a faster rate than Elena, despite the fact that she has no formal schooling. She picks up—seemingly by simple observation—how to design and make shoes from her cobbler father and starts a lucrative shoemaking and designing business that profits her whole family. When things with the family business go irrevocably south (because, remember, you are not your family and it’s not always a great idea to go into business with them) her curiosity and natural intelligence take her into the world of computer programming. Eventually, our inexhaustible Lila makes a living (and regains all, if not more, of her lost power) with a computer business.

Various depictions and forms of education meet many of the characters in the Neapolitan Novels. Self-taught computer technicians, fastidious academics, pseudointellectual writers, indoctrinated politicians…all of these characters, even if very, very flawed, are able to lead interesting lives. The only people who we really, truly pity are those who are too frightened to learn anything at all.

What books have taught you some unexpected life lessons? What were they? Share your reading list and tell us in the comments!