Here are two of the best feelings a passionate reader can have:
1. Pleasure in watching a beloved author have her moment, break out, find her time and audience.
2. Pride in having even the smallest bit to do with it.
Today I have both, as I watch what’s happening to The Story of the Lost Child, a book that we put on the Best of September list yesterday. Within 24 hours, the fourth in the Neapolitan Novels by the pseudonymous Italian author has flown into the top 100 of Amazon’s bestseller list. And while I first heard about Ferrante from an agent named Anna Stein (hi, Anna!) five or so years ago when she insisted I go right home and read Days of Abandonment (which I did), I’m hardly the only reader/reviewer to know about her. The Story of the Lost Child is on many best books of fall lists, and has received glowing reviews everywhere already. (As of this writing, there’s only one Amazon customer review – but it’s a 5-star rave.) Authors and publications from Mona Simpson to the New Yorker to Vanity Fair have extolled Ferrante’s virtues. Never mind that even the most sophisticated, connected book people insist they don’t know Ferrante’s identity – everybody seems suddenly to know what she does for a living.
There’s something about this moment, or maybe it’s this particular book, that has the appearance of reaching critical mass. Since the galleys went into circulation a few months ago, I’ve had more conversations about Ferrante than I seem ever to have about a single writer – and with more varied and sundry people. For example: I gave the first three books to my sister-in-law, an attorney and one of the best readers I know – and by that I mean she can be hard to please, literarily (and I mean that in the best way). She got through all three books in the first week of her vacation, told me several times how much she likes them, and today I’m sending her the fourth. My own sister, no slouch in the hard-to-please department – and she’s a reviewer, too, natch – told me for the first time last month that she has long been obsessed with the first three books and has been nagging me to tell her what happens in the fourth. (I’m sending her a copy, too.)
And then, the random sightings. A friend, not in publishing, who picked up the galley of The Story of the Lost Child from my coffee table and mimed shoving it surreptitiously into her handbag. The editor of a very different kind of novel coming to lunch and, noting what I was reading, “dying to know” how this one is, since she just started the first one. And at our editorial meeting last month, the number of women – it does always seem to be women – who said they couldn’t wait to read it and that everybody they knew were hoping to get their hands on it. And the literary agent (though not of Ferrante) who said she wanted to hand out the book on street corners to every woman she saw.
Of course, Elena Ferrante, like any writer, no matter how brilliant, isn’t for everyone. I’ve also known people to confess (somewhat sheepishly) that they just “couldn’t get into” Ferrante’s books, and that there were too many characters, and too much detail. They’re not wrong. The books can seem slow to start and there ARE a lot of characters with similar and overlapping names and stories. It’s just that, like the taste of anchovies or of Tolstoy, you either like it, or you don’t.
I’m on record as liking it. And it’s so satisfying that lots of other readers seem to be liking it, too.
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