Elena Ferrante is as enigmatic as she is fabulous. She’s the world’s most famous living pseudonymous writer – you could pass her on the street and not even know it! One of the small glimpses she has given us into her “real” life is a list of books she recommends. You can check out the full list of forty here, but this post is dedicated to the creme de la creme, five books recommended by Elena Ferrante that are KUWTP-tested and approved!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
It’s hardly a surprise that Elena Ferrante would love and recommend Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 best-seller. Like her Neapolitan novels, A Little Life is a biography of a friendship, following it from youth through to the end of life. Perhaps if it had been published, in its 800+ page glory, before Ferrante’s Neapolitan series went to press, her publisher might have conceded to printing all four books as a single volume (which, she has said, is how she wrote them and how they were intended). Ferrante’s recommendation also tells us that she must have plenty of reading time on her hands: A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG, and with a trove of detail on every page it’s definitely not skimmable. Read my full review of A Little Life here.
The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
I was surprised to see The Year Of Magical Thinking on the list of books recommended by Elena Ferrante, if only because I tend to associate it more with Didion’s millennial fans (Ferrante being, presumably, a bit older than that). Ferrante would probably have been introduced to Didion during her earlier hey-day, in the Slouching Towards Bethlehem era. Still, it’s wonderful to see that this memoir of grief and rumination resonates with Didion readers across the age brackets. If you squint, you can see some parallels between Didion as she represents herself on the page and Ferrante’s characters: women who are introspective, bookish, and intense.
Breasts And Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Elena Ferrante recommended a number of books in translation, but my favourite is Breasts And Eggs by Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami. My edition was translated into English by Sam Bett and David Boyd, but I assume that Ferrante read it translated into Italian by Gianluca Coci (Seni e Uova). I wonder what might have changed in the story, what might be lost or found in the translation that Ferrante read and loved. At its core, presumably, the story remained the same: three women reckoning with what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan. (Psst: Ferrante’s not the only one who loves Kawakami’s work – Haruki Murakami called her Japan’s “most important contemporary novelist”!) Read my full review of Breasts And Eggs here.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Beloved has become a classic of contemporary literature, and it’s rare that you see a list of books recommended by any author that doesn’t include it – Elena Ferrante’s list of book recommendations is no exception! It is a “towering achievement” of a novel that “stares into the abyss of slavery”, according to the blurb, but it’s also a heart-wrenching depiction of the grief and trauma of womanhood and the lived experience of the black body. Like Ferrante, Morrison’s prose is evocative in the extreme, and you’ll be transported by it. Read my full review of Beloved here.
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
Of all the books recommended by Elena Ferrante, Blonde might be the one that surprised me most. After all, Oates’ oeuvre is huge (58 novels, plus plays and poetry and short stories and novellas and…) – why would Ferrante choose the fictionalised life of movie star-slash-sex symbol Marilyn Monroe? Because it’s brilliant, of course! Oates takes some imaginative leaps, sure, but that’s all in service of providing a whole new perspective on the life of Norma Jean, one that will unsettle and discomfit you in ways you couldn’t possibly expect. This is another tough read (seriously, Ferrante, what about a rom-com?!) but a very worthy one.