End of an Era: Reading the final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend The Story of a New Name Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay The Story of the Lost Child

Last night, I arrived home from work, heated up some leftover takeout curry, and finished The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The books follow Ferrante’s narrator Elena and her friend, Lila, from their shared childhood in a poor, Camorra-controlled neighborhood in Naples; into their teens and twenties, when Elena leaves the neighborhood, attends university and establishes herself as a scholar and writer; their thirties and forties, when they are once more living nearby in the neighborhood; and into their fifties and sixties, when their friendship begins to disintegrate.

Ferrante’s narrative accumulates details, gestures, and interpersonal histories in a way that allows her to imbue a pair of shoes or a glance between friends with devastating meaning. Near the end of the first novel, one of the Solara brothers—Lila’s enemy and one of the most powerful figures in the neighborhood—arrive at a wedding reception wearing a certain pair of shoes. I gasped aloud. Without Ferrante saying so, I knew that a terrible betrayal had taken place, and I was stunned by how deftly Ferrante had given me all of the details that I needed to be able to understand what the shoes meant.

One of the things I love about Ferrante’s writing was the way that she captured what it feels like to be simultaneously in your own mind and in a world made up of other people. We all know what it feels like to be half in a conversation and also thinking about something else: how handsome the man you’re talking to is, what your best friend would say if she were here, how secretly uncertain you are of the opinions you’re expressing.

I’ve been reading my way through the series for the last six or seven months, interspersing Ferrante’s novels with other books along the way, and I felt a sense of both completeness and emptiness as I reached the last page of The Story of the Lost Child. In a sense, the process of reading the novels seemed to mark out an era of my own life. Like the narrator Elena, who has furiously written pages and pages of text recounting her friendship with Lila, I couldn’t believe it was over.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West—an empathetic, allegorical story of the refugee crisis

Exit West Mohsin HamidI have been eager to get hold of a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s slim and timely novel, Exit West, ever since reading a November review in the London Review of Books, and this past week finally I sat down and read it, devouring the book in three days. I’d previously read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I was impressed by how he had created a measured and idiosyncratic voice for his narrator, a man who may—or may not—be a terrorist. Exit West is a very different kind of novel, but it shares with The Reluctant Fundamentalist a slightly abstracted, allegorical sensibility.

The premise of Exit West is simple: in an unnamed city that we can guess is located somewhere in the Middle East, a young man and a young woman meet in a continuing education class and fall in love. Nadia and Saeed listen to music and cook for each other and smoke weed and dream of traveling. When war breaks out and the city is taken over by fundamentalists, they decide they will try to flee the country. This is where an element of the surreal comes into play: Nadia and Saeed have heard a rumor that doors around the city are transforming into portals that lead to other parts of the world. They pay a smuggler who takes them to a dentist’s office. They open a cupboard door, step through, and find themselves on a Greek island. The couple stays in a refugee camp there for a while before finding another door, which leads them to London. Months later, they pass through another door to California. The story of Nadia and Saeed’s journey and their relationship is interspersed with vignettes about other migrants in other places.

This conceit allows Hamid to explore the idea of migration without actually describing the arduous process of crossing borders. It feels almost impossible not to read the story as a commentary on the current refugee crisis, and the portals themselves suggest that borders, as delineated by the state, are arbitrary and impossible to enforce. In Exit West, the world remakes itself to allow migration to take place; like it or not, people always have, and always will, move from place to place. In London, Nadia and Saeed witness the fury of UKIP-esque nativists, but the locals eventually realize that they must find a way to live alongside the migrants who have come to their city.

Late in the novel, Hamid writes of a woman who has lived all her life in one house, and who nonetheless finds that much of the world around her seems foreign. “We are all migrants through time,” he writes, and I see meaning in Hamid’s choice to use the word migration throughout the novel rather than immigration or emigration. In Exit West, migration isn’t always a matter of where you are leaving from or going to. By the time Nadia and Saeed leave the city where they grew up, it must seem to them in many ways unrecognizable. Even if we ourselves don’t move, places will remake themselves about us.

Reading the Iranian Revolution

House of the MosquePersepolis

Last month, I found myself reading two very different literary takes on twentieth-century Iranian history: Kader Abdolah’s semi-autobiographical novel The House of the Mosque and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis. My book club had chosen The House of the Mosque as January’s discussion book, and so when I saw a copy of Persepolis at a local charity shop, I bought it—it would be interesting, I thought to read two books that follow the turmoil of Iranian politics through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This was a period that I knew little about before reading the two books, and even now I’d say that my understanding of Iranian history and politics during this era is rather hazy. Both books use political events as a backdrop for other stories, and in The House of the Mosque, I found it at times challenging to tell how much of the plot was historical and how much was imagined.

The House of the Mosque follows the rising and falling fortunes of the occupants of a house attached to a mosque in Senejan. Aqa Jaan, the patriarch of the family is a traditionalist, but not a fundamentalist, and we see him and other members of the family examining their relationship to Islam, first amid the Shah’s push for Westernization, and then under Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious regime. While many members of my book club enjoyed the novel’s atmospheric vignettes, I found myself frustrated by how characters dropped in and out of the meandering plot, often without a clear purpose. I was also unimpressed by the characterization of most of the women in the novel—Abdolah spends a lot of time depicting various women acquiescing to their lovers, but doesn’t tell us much about the women’s motivations for the actions outside of the bedroom (a plot line in which one woman becomes a brutal interrogator for the secret police is barely explained).

Persepolis, on the other hand, is primarily a coming-of-age story, and its plot follows Satrapi’s life from her childhood to her early twenties. Like The House of the MosquePersepolis shows characters evaluating their religious and political beliefs, but unlike most of the characters in Abdolah’s novel, Marjane and her family are radical leftists, and the graphic memoir is full of discussions of Marxist theory. When Marjane is eventually sent away to school in Austria, she falls in with a crowd of anarchists, thinking they’ll understand and respect her experiences in Iran. She is disappointed to find that her new friends are more interested in getting high than talking politics—for them, Marxism and anarchism are simply a cool shorthand for punk culture.

Though I decidedly preferred Persepolis to The House of the Mosque, I am glad that I read them in tandem. The two books refer to many of the same historical events, and it was informative to glimpse those events through the eyes of two sets of characters with very different values. I also left both books with a renewed sense of curiosity about Iranian history, and I was reminded of how, as a teen, reading historical fiction sparked my interest in studying history more formally. It’s always a good sign, I think, when you close a book feeling eager to learn more.

Rewatching “Girls”


This spring, I watched from my couch in Queens as Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) said goodbye to the city and moved upstate to an utterly unrealistic teaching job. Then, I opened my laptop and began reading the approximately 1,000 think pieces on the show’s final season.

I thought back to April 2012, when Girls had first premiered. At the time, I was a high school senior, one academic year behind Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna. Six months later, I started watching the show because everyone at my women’s college seemed to talking about it: the nudity and cringe-worthy sex scenes, the cast’s problematic lack of diversity, and the gentrifying Brooklyn that it portrayed. The show was fresh and new and flawed but, true to the spirit of millennial hipster culture, no one was sure if it was deeply contrived or deeply honest.

There is probably little I can say about Girls that has not been said before. To rehash some of the key points: The show is at times good and at times terrible, and it is always messy. Like its obvious predecessor, Sex & The City, it features four white, single women living in New York, and it’s frank about sex and dating and love and friendship in ways that often felt groundbreaking. In both shows, characters who are “broke” can mysteriously live in their own spacious apartments. Sex & The City is sometimes described in aspirational terms, with  “I’m a Carrie” and “I’m a Samantha” comparisons, but no one really wants be one a character in Girls. I’ve never heard someone self-identify as “a Hannah,” “a Marnie,” “a Jessa,” or “a Shoshanna.”

This week, I’ve started re-watching Girls, and though I almost always rewatch shows from beginning to end, I found myself watching out-of-order. I skipped most of the season where Hannah is working as a teacher because her lack of boundaries with students frustrates me too much.  I watched Marnie’s (Allison Williams) wedding, and then skipped ahead to the aftermath of her divorce. I watched the season 6 episode where Shoshanna stages a friend-breakup in the bathroom of her engagement party, and the episodes in which Hanna’s father comes out as gay and her parents decide to divorce.

Girls doesn’t go as far as Master of None in exploring the potential of tv episodes that function as short films, but many of the best episodes of Girls can be watched as stand-alone stories. Marnie’s night walking through Manhattan with her ex, Shoshanna’s business trip to Japan, Hannah’s visit home to see her dying grandmother, and her interview with a manipulative and famous male writer are all slightly disconnected from the show’s central narrative.

As I zig-zagged through six seasons of a show that is, for better or worse, a voice of a generation, I wondered if this could be where a certain type of tv is headed: 25 minute mini-films that can be watched together or apart, in or out of sequence, neither pure comedy nor pure drama.

Revisiting Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle


When the film adaptation of Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle appeared in my Prime Video recommendations last week, I couldn’t help but add it to my queue. I’ve loved the novel for years, and I have a distinct memory of reading the novel for the first time, sitting in a green-and-white striped armchair in the driveway in front of my parents’ house (it was summer vacation, and the living room floors were being redone).

At the time, I was a methodical diarist, and I believed myself to be in unrequited love with a boy who was two years older than me and to whom I barely spoke. I Capture the Castle felt like exactly the book I needed: an Austen-esque bildungsroman, the novel is told from the perspective of seventeen year old diarist Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a decrepit castle that her father, a struggling but famous writer, has not paid rent on in years. When two brothers, Simon and Neil, inherit the castle and move in next door, they seem to offer a way out of poverty and boredom: a strategic marriage between Rose, Cassandra’s twenty-year-old sister, and Simon, the eldest son could keep the family financially afloat. Simon and Neil seem like Darcy and Bingley. Rose tries to flirt like girls in classic novels and at first fails miserably—she doesn’t know how to be a modern woman of the 1930s. Matchmaking plans are set into motion, and it all feels like a romantic game—until, suddenly, it isn’t fun anymore.

Reading the novel as a young teen, I identified with Cassandra’s aching desire to be a writer, to understand her family and the adults around her, to fall in love, to become an adult herself. In one scene early in the novel, Cassandra overhears a conversation between Simon, the man who she falls in love with and who becomes her sister’s fiancé, and his brother. The two remark that she is “a cute kid” and “a bit self-consciously naive.” Cassandra is furious, and when I first read the novel, I was furious on her behalf. Revisiting the story now, I still recognize those feelings, but I see something else, too: that Cassandra, who says she “feels older” than seventeen, is very, very young. This isn’t to say that her feelings and observations should be disregarded—Cassandra’s teenage perspective and her voice as a narrator are exactly what make the novel so compelling and relatable.

At 23, I hardly possess years of worldly experience, but I think I’m now a bit wiser than Cassandra or the equally sheltered Rose. At fourteen, I saw the Rose-Cassandra-Simon love triangle as tragically romantic, but last week, watching the film, I was struck by how deeply inappropriate it is for Simon to kiss Cassandra. He is a grown man, engaged to her sister, and she is seventeen. Simon sees this as no big deal, and though Cassandra is distraught by the idea that she has betrayed her sister, she still sees Simon as essentially a good man, someone worthy of her love. Suddenly, Simon seems more Wickham than Darcy.

And then, there’s Stephen, the son of the Mortmain’s former housekeeper and love interest Cassandra by all rights should end up with. Yet, when he takes a modeling gig so he can save up to buy Cassandra a radio, he ends up sleeping with a much-older, married photographer. When Cassandra discovers this, she finds herself inexplicably upset. She and Stephen talk it over—how love and desire are messier, more complicated than either of them had imagined. Yet neither Stephen nor Cassandra seem to see that their older partners of taken advantage of their idealistic views of love and sex.

In spite of the novel’s nods to Austen and classic marriage plots, only a few characters in I Capture the Castle have traditionally happy endings. At the same time, no one really gets a tragic ending either—instead, they go on with their imperfect lives. Cassandra has been unlucky in love, and she says she was a fool to ever think she could “capture” the world on paper—but we readers know she has grown up, grown wiser, and that she is certainly a writer.

A few final notes:

  1. In case you haven’t read the novel, you can read an excerpt of the first chapter here. In my opinion, it has one of the best opening lines of all time.
  2. In the film adaptation, Rose is played by Rose Byrne. It delights me that before she was in Bridesmaids and X-Men, she was a supporting character in several British period dramas (she’s also in the David Tennant version of Casanova).

Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake


A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?


I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls


Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.



On Our New Poet Laureate, Tracy K Smith


This week, the news that Tracy K Smith had been chosen as the new poet laureate of the US provided me with a gleam of encouragement amidst the ever-worsening firestorm of current events. I first discovered Smith’s work in a college seminar on contemporary poetry. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning collection Life on Mars was required reading, and I immediately loved her powerful, clear-voiced, and accessible style. Many of her poems–The Speed of Belief, Eggs Norwegian, and The Good Life among them–have stuck in my head and prompted revisiting and rereading over the last few years. Last year, I taught The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to a class of middle school students.

In honor of Smith’s new role as poet laureate, I’d like to share some thoughts on Life on Mars. I’m also adding her memoir, Ordinary Light, to my reading list.


Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith’s attempt to address death in the post-space age era, is an ambitious collection of poetry, spanning topics literally as vast as our ever-expanding universe.

Smith’s father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope during the 1980s, died in 2008, and his presence is felt throughout the book in Smith’s allusions to astronomy and outer space. If anything, Smith takes on too much. The book’s four parts chart a progression towards the internal, and Smith risks losing her readers along the way, but those who stay with her will find Life on Mars both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Smith begins by examining the world in which we live on a massive scale. Part one of the collection is an amalgamation of astronomical facts and Cold War pop culture references drawn from Smith’s childhood.  “Sci-Fi” and “Museum of Obsolescence” offer Bradbury-esque visions of a future where “Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift / in the haze of space” or visit museums to stare at “an image of the old planet taken from space.”  In “It & Co.,” Smith searches for something unnamed, “vast and unreadable.” Those who remember Sylvia Plath’s “Death & Co.” might guess that Smith is referring to death, but the unidentified “it” appears throughout the book in a variety of contexts. Among other things, “it” sometimes stands in for death, but also for life, space, and sex. As I read further in the collection and grew accustomed to Smith’s ambiguous “it,” I found myself substituting new words and concepts for “it,” testing out possible meanings for the lines. Smith turns the reader into the astronomer, searching for something to explain the motions of the universe.

Life on Mars ranges in scope from the cosmic to the political to the deeply personal, and Smith is at her best when, as in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she successfully unifies these extremes. The ambiguous “it” appears again in this title, taken from a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger. One man against the authorities. / Or one man against a city of zombies,” Smith writes, reminding us of the cinematic tropes that still shape popular conceptions of science and outer space. Smith goes on to describe a meeting with actor Charlton Heston, who, I learned from a visit to IMDb, starred in the 1968 sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes. Heston died in 2008, the same year as Smith’s father. Smith invites Heston inside, where, she writes, “I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back. / That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.”  The scene underscores the vagueness of our understanding of time and space; Heston’s cryptic words sound like those of a movie character, and Smith’s notes at the end of the book give no hint as to whether their meeting is real or imagined. Here, Smith successfully uses ambiguity to force her readers to scrutinize the poem. The passage left me curious, but not disoriented.

When Smith describes her father for the first time in the book, she pairs her description of his work on the Hubble with the imagery of Cold War America:

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope […]

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,

His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,

When we lived with our finger on The Button […] 

Smith reminds us that the space race, which propelled humanity towards deeper and more complete scientific knowledge of our universe, was also driven by nuclear brinkmanship and fear of worldwide annihilation. Smith’s references to the Cold War set up her later discussion of the ongoing War on Terror, and by drawing a parallel between the two wars, Smith makes the Cold War allusions of part one more relevant to readers today.

“The Speed of Belief,” Smith’s elegy for her father, is one of two poems included in part two. The poem opens with a description of the hospital room where Smith and her family gather around her dying father, surrounded by “trays of food meant to fortify that silence.” The scene will be familiar to anyone who has visited a hospital death bed, where flowers and framed photos only partly mask the impersonality and sterility of the room. In the next section of the poem, Smith addresses her dead father, recalling her grandfather’s death:

When your own sweet father died

You woke before first light

And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,

And drank a glass of milk.

After you’d left, I sat in your place.

As Smith finds herself in her father’s place, this time metaphorically. Mourning her father’s death, she must once again ask the childhood question, “who were we / Without your clean profile nicking away / at anything that made us afraid?” As Smith struggles to explain her father’s death, she finds that she must redefine her own identity, both as a daughter, and as an individual. Who are we without the people we love? So much of our own selves are created in the context of our relationships that death forces us to examine ourselves. The final sections of the poem move toward increasingly abstract imaginings of death and life after death, closing with Smith’s prayer that her father is “what waits / to break back into the world // Through me.”

In part three, Smith’s poetry moves away from childhood memories to focus on recent tragedies. The book’s title poem, “Life on Mars,” is both luminous and chilling. As she tries to define “the space between people / When what holds them together isn’t exactly love,” Smith recounts news stories describing the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib and a woman imprisoned and raped by her father. The horrors of life on earth, and in America today can be just as surreal and grotesque as imaginings of extraterrestrial life. In “Solstice,” a modified villanelle, Smith uses the gassing of geese at the JFK airport as an opportunity for political commentary. Smith criticizes the Bush administration’s obsession with the War on Terror and holds American citizens accountable for our passive complicity in injustice, our readiness to “back away from all we say / And, more or less, agree with what we should.”

Some of Smith’s strongest poems appear in part four, a collection of vignettes from daily life. Smith listens to the neighbor’s screaming children, refuses to walk the dog with her partner, goes for a frustrating walk with the dog, and contemplates the “the years I lived on coffee and bread.” Most of these poems, though beautifully executed, seem disconnected from the previous sections. The two final poems of the book, “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” and “US & Co.” do return to earlier themes. In “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” a sonnet to addressed to her child at the moment of conception, Smith asks, “From what dream world did you wriggle free?” The question calls to mind Smith’s earlier imaginings a nebulous afterlife where her father waits to break back into the world.

“Us & Co.” the book’s closing poem, harks back to part one’s “It & Co.” In “It & Co.,” Smith asks, “We are a part of It. Not guests. Is It us, or what contains us?” While “Us & Co. does not exactly answer the questions that Smith has posed to herself throughout the book, she does manage to find a kind of resolution:

We are here for what amounts to a few hours

a day at most

We feel around making sense of the terrain,

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes home. 

“It,” once a single and foreign thing, becomes “us,” as we come to better know ourselves and the people around us. There is comfort in this. Yet Smith is well aware that this sense of familiarity with our world is at once real and illusory. We make our homes among particular people in a very specific society. There is so much beyond us that we ignore, and even more that is real, but which is also unknown to us.

“When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / after all we’re certain to lose, so alive —” or when we recall how the Hubble “saw to the edge of all there is — // so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the reader, like Smith, will find herself in awe. Smith’s questions about death inevitably become a contemplation, and often a celebration, of life. After all, the book is not titled Death on Earth, but Life on Mars.