A Book by Its Cover

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all”
—Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (37)

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I attended a symposium in January in which the head of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA—an excellent resource if you don’t know of it) mentioned a book that he had loved (and had had to wait for as there was an over two-hundred person hold on it at his Boston library). I found the book in my library’s consortium, but also had to wait about a month and a half for it. I had already just gotten involved in another book, so when I got the notification that it was waiting for me, I retrieved the book immediately but was then warned that I had to return it in two weeks time due to other holds—I was a bit panicked and so read it right away.

The story takes place in Naples in a poor neighborhood and is narrated by Elena Greco concerning her friend, and her friendship with, Lila Cerullo. It is a really interesting book. Superficially it is a page turner of typical Italian melodrama. And yet there is more. First of all, it is a book about female friendship, which (as far as literary themes in the western “canon” go) is a johnny-come-lately of  a genre (jane, I suppose). For hundreds of years we got female characters who were mothers, sisters, lovers/wives, or daughters, but unlike the well-mined exploration of man-to-man friendships, the domain of female friendships was inaccessible (or perhaps uninteresting) to predominantly male writers. So, that aspect alone, which is richly examined in Ferrante’s first of 4(?) in the series, is quite wonderful.

What, instead, did [Lila] and Stefano have in mind, where did they think they were living? They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems that I studied in school, in novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults, even the truly intolerable insult that the Solaras were making (273).

The other really lovely subtlety of the novel is the interplay between the poverty of the neighborhood and education. Elena and Lila are both—well, in a word—brilliant, and Ferrante shows the development of their intellects and the struggles which ensue with a thorough beauty. I ended up, in my state of panic, reading the book in two days flat. But that may also be a function of the easy (which I do not mean disparagingly) prose and Ferrante’s ability to suck her readers in. In fact, although I knew going in that it was the first in a series, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed at the forcefulness of the serialization: I feel that I have to read the next book in order to finish the story and that can, and for me does, feel manipulative. But, as I enjoyed reading it, it is not perhaps too burdensome of a manipulation.

Here is my main serious complaint: I really hate the cover. I am glad to be done reading it so that I can be done having to look at the hideous thing. It is tacky and expresses nothing of the depth the novel offers: friendship, humanity, quotidian struggle, familial pressure, coming-of-age, prejudices, and culture. Instead it looks something like what the book is in danger of being misunderstood as: a made for TV melodrama mini-series. I have spent time in Naples (although the above photo of two of my children is in Rome it expresses the visual beauty of the country) I went back and looked at some photos I had taken Italy and Naples. The inner city is sensual and striking and I can not understand why the cover to this novel is so cheesy given the resources. This may be a small matter to some people, but I would argue that it is not. Whether one fully realizes it or not, these things matter. If you are asking me to read a book of some 350 pages, you would be wise to make me want to first hold that book in my hands.



7 responses to “A Book by Its Cover

  1. I, too, find the book a compulsive read. Moving on to the second book and will work my way through all four, although perhaps not in a rapid fire way. We’ll see. I am interested at how we tend to believe — mistakenly, in my opinion — how finding a book to be an “easy” read might be taken as an insult. Clarity of prose is such a gift. And when I read a writer whose prose is clear and unadorned and unfussy I am grateful for the gift. Too many difficult and obscure words in writing now turns me off, although it took me a while to fully appreciate the gift. I don’t find clarity to be un-intellectual. I think it might be the adage, If I’d had more time I would have written less…! Guess the more I write the more I appreciate clarity!

  2. I agree, I don’t think clarity is anti-intellectual, nor is it necessarily less writing (this book for example was not short). But maybe I look at it a different way. The problem, I think, is not in the clarity of prose—the level of difficulty of vocabulary does not necessarily make prose less clear—or at least it should not, after all the whole point is to use language to create nuance which a wider vocabulary serves, thereby actually creating clarity. The problem are the books (not the above, I hasten to add) that are “easy” and something, to me, akin to a potato chip—that is my term for such a book—they are one-note and give nothing lasting to contemplate (the philosopher in me! haha).
    In my case, things that are too easily digested in that way, turn me off because I really love to be moved by not only the story, but also by the language and telling. So in that way, I guess I do have a high tolerance for complexity—it is not just the telling of the story, but also how the story is told that I appreciate.

    And I too love that Pascal quote—I wanted to write a short note, but I didn’t have time—haha tell me about it! That, to me, explains why short stories are so powerful. So, while I agree that clarity is not anti-intellectual, neither should depth be considered pretentious. In all writing, I believe the clarity must serve the complexity and vice versa.

  3. I think design is underestimated. A lot of people think a nice pic with the title over it is good design, or that if you’re an artist you can be a good designer, but it’s a real skill in its own right. Probably the cover is cheesy as editors think that female friend stories are cheesy.

  4. I could not agree more with you about cover design. I have not seen the particular cover you refer to, but have certainly not chosen to read one book over another based on how the cover design contextualized the title. The only shame to this is those rare times when the cover is fabulous and the book does not live up to it’s cover so to speak. But this is rare.

    • Yes…that is rare, but pitiable all the same. I would not have read this book if had not been for external, very strong, praise. And I always think of Rebecca, which I loved, but read under the duress of the most ridiculously bodice-ripping cover….it still upsets me.

  5. Case in point about the cover being so full of promise that the book does not deliver: Skirting Heresy, The Life and Times of Margery Kemp by Elizabeth Macdonald. A beautiful cover with the title in an olde English sort of font on a transparent rectangle that partially obscures a mostly cream colored beautiful image of a woman in a dress kind of kneeling with hands crossed. The writing inside is primitive.

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