For about three years, I read fiction on my phone. I’d never done so before, and I haven’t since. I had to, during this period, because my wife and I were working our way through “The Neapolitan Quartet,” a series of novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. The books were so readable that I couldn’t wait for Anna to finish reading the hard copies we owned.
The story of two little girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s may not sound like the most engrossing reading, but it is, because of how Ferrante uses intense storytelling to illuminate the interior lives of her characters. The first novel begins with the girls’ exhilarating, terrifying quest to retrieve their toy dolls from a dark basement owned by the local crime boss. Ferrante’s books are so enthralling, I’d read hundreds of pages before noticing that religion hardly figures in them. This is strange given the setting—a poor neighborhood of postwar Naples—and also how much time and attention Ferrante devotes to detailing the great human drama of ordinary things, such as school-going, grocery shopping, summer vacations, and factory work, never mind what happens behind the slammed doors of family apartments. Did none of these people ever go to church? Were feast days never celebrated in the town square?